Camille Griffin’s Apocalyptic, Existential “Silent Night” Challenges Conventions of the Feel-Good Holiday Movie

This is one in a series of reviews from the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), during which I focused on films directed by women; you can find my other TIFF 2021 reviews here.

From Silent Night. (Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that out of the 18 months of social unrest, anxiety over climate change, and a global health crisis, would emerge a Christmas film as existentially harrowing as Silent Night. No matter that writer-director Camille Griffin conceived of the premise and wrote the script before the onset of the pandemic. Clearly the cards were already on the table about the direction humankind was headed: nowhere good.

A rare apocalyptic holiday movie, Silent Night is a philosophical and spirited dark comedy that manages to be equal parts charming and horrifying, but without the gruesome visuals that typify the horror genre. Instead, the film’s insidious aura of dread hovers just under the surface as the characters attempt to revel in a night of friendship, family, joy and love—all under the specter of certain death.

As the film begins, Nell (Keira Knightley), Simon (Matthew Goode) and their three sons (the oldest of whom, Art, played by Roman Griffin Davis of Jojo Rabbit fame, has an instrumental role in the film) are preparing to host a group of friends for a night of Christmas revelry. It’s also going to be their last night alive. A deadly cloud is sweeping the world, killing everyone in its path, and the friends have all made a pact to enjoy their last night together before taking their government-provided “Exit” pills and committing suicide to avoid the untold suffering they’ve heard will be caused by the inhalation of the cloud’s poisonous gasses.

A combination of old friends who’ve known each other since boarding school, their children, and a few significant others—who find themselves both outside the circle of camaraderie and intimately anchored to it—make for a compelling progression of interpersonal conflicts and tensions. The backdrop of imminent doom lends a pall to even the first half of the film, when the revelers are still remarkably upbeat, but there’s a sense of calm and resignation, too, which means Silent Night is quite funny throughout in a way that’s surprisingly gratifying.

In 1961, CBS aired a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Shelter.” Reflecting cultural anxieties about the Cold War, the episode offers a dystopian vision of American suburbia as a group of previously friendly neighbors fight to invade one family’s fallout shelter when they believe they’re about to be annihilated by a nuclear bomb. All the niceties of polite society burn away, leaving only rampant individualism, entitlement, racism and fear in their wake.

(KLJE Films)

Set in the British countryside, Silent Night operates almost as a counterpoint to this narrative. Here, knowing they are going to die, the friends have come together to try to share their love for each other in their final hours—even if their interactions are fraught with past grievances and new stressors. But the film reminds us frequently that these people are part of the British upper class, with their huge country home, boarding school upbringing, and refusal to engage in unpleasant discussions or move beyond the status quo. This is a different kind of dystopia, but one no less sinister despite its sheen of forced acceptance.

It’s the children, primarily Art, and one friend’s American girlfriend, Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), who offer the most salient critique of the extreme state of fatalistic denial embodied by the majority of the dinner guests. In one arresting scene, Art instigates an argument over the dinner table, and he and the other children lambast their parents for ruining the world and bringing about its destruction. In another, quieter, exchange, Art asks his father to explain why the British government hasn’t provided Exit pills to the homeless and undocumented immigrants, not to mention other, poorer countries, if they’re so worried about preventing people from dying in pain.

Art asks his father to explain why the British government hasn’t provided Exit pills to the homeless and undocumented immigrants, not to mention other, poorer countries, if they’re so worried about preventing people from dying in pain.

While the film begins with a foreboding as relentless as the noxious cloud moving inexorably closer, the relative remove of the early evening festivities allows Griffin to employ a lighter, comedic tone that grows steadily more somber as the night progresses. And it’s the compassionately minded Art, perfectly merging the roles of astute skeptic and scared child, who thinks beyond the confines of their isolated estate and who ultimately sets the stakes of the film: What lengths should we go to avoid human suffering and who gets to make that choice?

A thoughtful and clever film that adeptly interweaves levity and melancholy, Silent Night is a dark, dystopian comedy with an impressive cast, shrewd writing and directing, and a final act you won’t soon forget.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.