Review: ‘Silent Night’ is a brutal operatic revenge tale

Gimmicks. In the dire modern state of cinema, you’re gonna need one to get a movie made. At least if you’re not based on valuable intellectual property. It’s sad when an action film needs a hook beyond Hong Kong filmmaking legend John Woo directing. Even so, Silent Night, his first Hollywood film in 20 years, comes with the novelty of being a (mostly) dialogue-free actioner. It may not reach the heights of Hard BoiledFace/Off, or even Mission: Impossible II, but Silent Night’s visceral revenge yarn indicates that Woo still has plenty of juice left to stand out from the crowd.

A common thread of Woo’s, especially in his Hollywood work, is a predisposition towards melodrama. Silent Night’s opening shot explodes with po-faced pathos; a red balloon floats in the sky, panning down to reveal a desperate man in a blood-stained Christmas sweater chasing an unknown enemy. Blood, sweat, and tears all run down the face of Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman), and in an instant, Woo communicates all he needs to. Brian is hurt, sad, and ready for revenge, and that’s all the motivation we need. How audiences respond to this moment will ultimately determine how they feel about the film as a whole. John Woo isn’t interested in subtlety. Nor is he interested in using the revenge drama as a means to an end. In Silent Night, it’s all about that raw emotion. 

Joel Kinnaman as John Woo’s new muse

Robert Archer Lynn’s script is nothing special. It’s as straightforward as revenge movies come. Man has a happy life with a wife and kid. Man’s kid gets killed. Man goes on the warpath. It’s hard to see how someone with Woo’s pedigree would be attracted to it, but in an interview with The RingerWoo himself shed some light, saying: “I felt it could be a great challenge for myself. It would allow me to use my special gifts for using visuals and sounds to tell the story. It allows the audience to put much more attention on the actor’s face to feel the character more“. In practice, he nails it. Woo has found a new muse in Joel Kinnaman. Like Woo’s direction, he’s not doing anything different with his protagonist but does it with such verve and earnestness that I couldn’t help leaning forward in my chair.

Like an energetic rendition of an old standard, Woo and Kinnaman make tired beats fresh. A scene like Kinnaman’s character ignoring his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) to drink away his grief over his son getting hit by a stray gang bullet should induce a groan. And yet, Joel Kinnaman projects pain in his performance from a mile away, nearly bursting at the seams as cinematographer Sharone Meir captures him silently walking past his wife, panning over to her reaction, unsure what to do. As she sends a text as a last-ditch effort to try and reconcile, the camera pans again, showing him looking at the message and ignoring it, his back to the audience. Through Woo’s skillful direction of a committed Kinnaman, so much more sadness and isolation is conveyed through that simple moment than the cliche “I need you” customary dialogue exchange.

Let yourself disappear into Silent Night to enjoy it

The key to enjoying Silent Night is letting yourself disappear into it. Because the story is so bare-bones, you really have to focus on the building rage of Brian. The film’s second act is best described as an extended training montage. Investment is everything, and if you sink into the eyes of Kinnaman and Woo’s slow build of Brian honing his skills, then the incremental improvements- a fancy car maneuver tightening inch by inch, the bullet holes getting closer and closer to a bullseye at a shooting improvement- become wildly compelling. As enthralling as the journey from family man to vigilante can be, the same can’t be said for the villains’ journey. 

Here is where the dialogue-free conceit short changes the movie. The villains are Latino gang member stereotypes. Our lead villain, the ridiculously named Playa (Harold Torres), is all face tattoos and sneers. His gang? Careless lowlives who engage in out-in-the-open firefights, like the one responsible for Brian’s son being killed by a stray bullet. It feels oddly xenophobic. At the very least, it’s incredibly dated. There’s a peek into a more interesting portrayal when Brian, ready to shoot Playa point blank in the streets, witnesses him giving back to the community’s children. Sadly, it’s played more of a “damn it, he’s using kids as a human shield” instead of a genuine moral complication, tossing away the opportunity to paint the story in more shades of gray. 

The third act delivers the goods

At the eleventh hour, the third act delivers the goods. Hard. After an emotional build-up comes the cathartic release. Rather than repeat his old bag of tricks, John Woo goes for something more vicious. As he arrives at the villains’ lair, Kinnaman’s Brian becomes a bonafide killing machine. Gliding up stairways, through hallways, and into a crystal ball-filled room where Playa has a sinister dance with his drug-fueled girlfriend, the camerawork conveys real grit, capturing Brian’s dark Night of the soul emphatically and beautifully. What’s decidedly not beautiful is the violence, and this is intentional. Woo eschews his usual stylish tableaus for blood splatter, bone-crunching, and the out-and-out ugliness of revenge. Don’t worry; there’s still plenty of slow motion, and a detective played by Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) dual-wields pistols, but the vibe is decidedly different.

Joel Kinnaman as Godlock in Silent Night. Photo Credit: Carlos Latapi. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.


Backed by Marco Beltrami’s pulsating score and tracks from bands like SUUNS and PrayersSilent Night coalesces into something like a grand opera of bloodshed. The dank interior of the gangsters’ hideout recalls catacombs. Brian marches towards his own inevitable death, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. It’s simply exquisite. Even if the first ⅔ might be generic for some, the third act of Silent Night is a near masterpiece of pure visual storytelling, forging a 1:1 connection between the desperate vengeance of the protagonist and the audience, building towards an ending that in another movie would be unbelievably played out. Here, it nearly wrung tears out of me. 

Final thoughts on Silent Night

Silent Night, first and foremost, is an experiment. A master filmmaker who hasn’t worked in Hollywood in a while tries his hand at a new gimmick. Like any experiment, some factors aren’t quite successful- an undercooked script and stereotypical villains- but the results are a resounding success. At least to me. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, mostly due to its simplicity. Really, though, as an exercise of stepping into the shoes of a character, it’s an utterly unique shock to the system. Ahead of its time? Possibly. Perfect? Absolutely not. But give it a few years, and the fans of John Woo’s latest won’t be so silent. 

Silent Night is now in theaters

Silent Night is now playing in theaters worldwide. Visit the website to learn how to get tickets near you.

Still looking for something to watch? James recently reviewed Godzilla Minus One and called it the ideal kaiju movie.

If you’re looking for something with a little more kick, check out Ayla Ruby’s review of the action-romance Ghosted.