While he may be a competent director for the most part, the name John Woo (Paycheck) isn’t one that immediately screams “substance.” Nevertheless, Silent Night showcases Woo’s ability to serve up something far more meaningful than the average popcorn flick.
Wholesome family man Brian (Joel Kinnaman) is a nearly picture-perfect husband and father, but his entire worldview is shattered when his neighborhood becomes the latest battleground in an ongoing gang war. He loses his son in the crossfire, while another stray bullet deprives him of his voice. What looked to be a beautiful Christmas just moments before becomes a grief-stricken tragedy that ultimately drives his wife (Catalina Moreno) away from him as his focus narrows on revenge.
There’s not much to say about the story itself. Despite following a rather predictable and trope-laden plot thread, it’s also curiously muddled at times. For instance, Brian goes out of his way to involve police detective Dennis (Scott Mescudi) by presenting him with evidence linking the attack to gang leader Playa (Harold Torres). This, however, occurs when he already appears set on retaliation. Considering how quickly Brian trains himself in the art of murder, it’s hard to imagine him being absent-minded enough to draw police attention right before embarking on a bloodthirsty rampage. Like many of the film’s story beats, this moment clearly only exists to forward the plot.
Even so, viewers able to forgive headscratchers like these will find that the film doesn’t excel on the basis of what the story is about, but rather in the manner it’s presented. Brian is far from the only wordless player in the film, yet Woo embraces the concept of “show, don’t tell” with stunning artistry. To call it a modern silent film would be inaccurate, as the music and gunfire still ring clear throughout. Even older silent films often relied on text to speak for the characters, while Brian’s emotional arc is told entirely through Kinnaman’s tortured expressions. Meanwhile, Woo frequently employs overhead shots to show the full scale of death and destruction that Playa and the man he’s wronged have wrought upon their surroundings.
Although wordless expression pervades throughout, Kinnaman handles it better than anyone. There’s one particularly chilling scene in which he seems unable to accept his loss of speech. Although his dead son serves little more function than as a prop to set up some old-fashioned bloodletting, Kinnaman’s performance in this scene captures a sense of helplessness familiar to anyone who’s suffered PTSD following a violent criminal encounter. He’s stuck in a world far different from the one he thought he lived in only days before. Trapped in this new existence, he has nowhere to turn except for vengeful ideation. Even when he begins taking steps to make that vengeance a reality, his eyes hardly mask the vulnerability that’s taken over this once-joyful father.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a John Woo movie if this didn’t set the scene for some insane bullet ballet. True to form, Woo manages to make every single action scene stand apart. Some of the best scenes deprive Brian of firepower altogether, with one fisticuff duel in particular standing out as among the most grueling, tension-filled fights put to film. What really makes the action stand out, however, is that Woo ends many of the film’s battles with quiet moments that give the audience time to process what they’ve seen. Rather than shoveling handfuls of popcorn in between shootouts, viewers are reminded that these death battles are quite real for the characters partaking in them.
Silent Night probably lacks the franchise potential of a John Wick movie, but that’s okay. With his first American film in decades, John Woo has shown that he has far more to offer than over-the-top action and cheesy dialogue. Apparently, an old dog can learn new tricks. If he continues to utilize these tricks in future outings, the entire landscape of action films may be better for it.