THE STORY – On Christmas Eve, a man witnesses the death of his young son when the boy gets caught in crossfire between warring gangs. Recovering from a wound that cost him his voice, he soon embarks on a bloody and grueling quest to punish those responsible.
THE CAST – Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi, Harold Torres & Catalina Sandino Moreno
THE TEAM – John Woo (Director) & Robert Archer Lynn (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
It’s Christmas season, but Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnaman) is not feeling the spirit. While playing in their front yard, a stray bullet from gang warfare kills his son. Brian runs after the people responsible and manages to get revenge on one of the men with a gun. Still, the menacing, tatted-up gang leader Playa (Harold Torres) escapes after injuring Brian in the neck. The injury leaves Brian unable to speak and yearning for revenge even more. Frustrated with the police’s inability to find and convict those responsible, Brian takes matters into his own hands, preparing to bring down the man he sees as responsible. As Brian loses himself in his mission, he and his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) grow more isolated in their grief. Will their marriage survive? Will either of them survive?
Whether in Hollywood or his native Hong Kong, John Woo is one of the greatest action directors. Few can match his kineticism or facility with the frame. He has taken on a late-career challenge with “Silent Night,” a revenge flick with almost no dialogue. Woo has never had to rely on visual storytelling this much, and he clearly throws everything he can at the material. Freeze-frames, smash zooms, slow-motion, whip pans, oners; practically every cinematic trick in the book gets trotted out for a moment in the sun, and nearly all of them are effective. Woo feels energized by the material, even though it’s pretty standard revenge narrative fare. However, the action itself never feels particularly innovative, mainly eschewing the almost expressionistic lighting of the “John Wick” films and the jaw-dropping in-camera stunts of the “Mission: Impossible” films in favor of a more straightforward style that reflects the blunt force of the fists and bullets the characters use. The only genuinely interesting element in the film is the dialogue-free hook, which sounds like a lot bigger deal than it actually is.
The lack of dialogue doesn’t feel too noticeable, largely because there are a few lines of dialogue. What few there are come from some TV news reports and a couple of whispered exclamations from Saya, which keep the premise from feeling too gimmicky. The visuals really do tell us all we need to know, and Woo gets a big boost from Kinnaman’s performance. While the actor’s cinematic output mostly hasn’t had the white-hot charisma and understated talent of his breakthrough performance in the TV series “The Killing,” the lack of dialogue here requires him to dig deep in order to sell the character. One of the biggest surprises of “Silent Night” is that it spends much time as a character study instead of an action thriller, and Kinnaman fully commits himself to the material. Brian’s palpable grief over his son’s murder feels overwhelming, and when he snaps out of it and begins his revenge journey, Kinnaman makes it believable in that his rage feels just as deep. He even sells us on Brian’s inexperience, as he effortfully strains to complete such commonplace training montage exercises as pull-ups and target practice. His scenes with the powerfully emotive Sandino Moreno ache with the deep feeling of a couple fraying at the seams after a tragedy, providing the film with a solid emotional base to stage its grand action setpieces.
The real star of the film, however, is composer Marco Beltrami. In the absence of dialogue, the film’s score becomes vital in getting across the emotion of any given scene, made more difficult here by the screenplay’s mixture of overwhelming grief and hard-boiled action. Beltrami spectacularly rises to the occasion, seamlessly weaving together the emotional themes of the dramatic scenes and the pulsing, bass-heavy themes of the action scenes. Thrilling work from a composer at the top of his game, Beltrami’s score keeps us invested in the story even when the story beats are somewhat expected. After the opening scene, the film drags for quite a while, only roaring to life for a bit before pulling out all the stops for the final raid on Playa’s compound. The score does such an effective job, though, that you get giddy with anticipation whenever the action theme kicks in, ready for Woo to punch you in the gut.
Even though the filmmaking may not reach the innovative heights of the best action films, Woo remains effective at staging action. You can feel every blow during the fights, every tight turn during the chases. Since the film opens with such devastating violence, we become painfully aware of Brian’s mortality, which raises the stakes for every following fight. Combined with Woo’s filmmaking’s blunt force, it makes for some energizing moments. That energy may not flow throughout the whole film, but the care that “Silent Night” takes with its characters is rare for this kind of film, putting it a cut above the rest.