John Woo shows that silence is golden
So the old saying goes, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” John Woo was quite eager to point out that the aforementioned proverb does not preclude brutally murdering the people about whom you can say nothing nice, all the while saying absolutely nothing. That is what he shows off to you in his 2023 action movie Silent Night, released December 1st, written by Robert Archer Lynn, and starring Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi, Harold Torres, and Catalina Sandino Moreno.
The movie begins in medias res, as Brian Godlock (Kinnaman) pursues criminals through the streets of Las Palomas, New Mexico. He fights them, to a point, blood covering his sweater with a reindeer on it, for it is Christmas Eve. But then he is shot in his neck, and hastily hauled to the hospital. He survives, but his vocal cords are destroyed.
You then realize that, earlier on that seemingly bucolic Christmas Eve, he and his wife Saya (Sandino Moreno) are playing with their little son in their yard. Father and son tussle, making memories for a lifetime. However, at that same moment two criminal gangs are having a gunfight-cum-car chase through the streets of Las Palomas, bullets flying every which way—and into Brian’s son, felling him right there. This is what prompts the chase, and the injury that would render Brian mute.
Then you come to understand the central gimmick: this is an action film with none of the dialogue, none of the wit, none of the jokes that other films of this genre would. There is only sweat, tears, grunts, bullets, blood, and death. It is an interpretation of the genre that takes its tendency towards grit, already nigh-canonical, and strips it down to the bone. There are no belles-lettres to dignify any violence, no heroic speeches to justify it, no loving words exchanged to soften its perpetrators. That renders the experience very, very raw.
There are some words spoken, but never by a named character. You hear radios with pundits pontificating about interest rates or police officers during a firefight, mourning their dead. There are also written words, mostly text messages, and it is in those that so much of the pathos comes from; you see Saya trying to comfort Brian, that sort of frantic texting that happens when you’re stressed and perhaps can’t think straight.
Brian’s rage festers through the coming year, the passage of time marked by a calendar, particularly emphasizing each holiday. You get the impression that the very idea of a ‘holiday’ is now stained in this family. Months after that fateful Christmas, you can still see the tree they had put up, gifts wrapped in gaudy colors in their living room. It’s a potent metaphor for their grief, as they almost approach something resembling normalcy after this crime, only to be reminded that some days are supposed to be special, yet that specialness has forever been marred by bloodshed for them.
Of course, this being an action movie, Brian seeks to take revenge in an appropriately violent way. He trains by himself in his garage, learning firearms and martial arts from instructors, and everything else from the internet. That last bit stands out to me; I haven’t seen many action movies taking advantage of the digital world like that, but it’s very believable, in our world of 3D-printed guns and terror manifestos spread through nasty internet fora.
Woo and company show Brian’s descent into hell, into more bloodshed, into rage, with heightened realism. His wife leaves him to live with her family, overwhelmed by his monomaniacal pursuit of revenge. This feeds Brian's vicious cycle: his obsession alienates her, she stays away, this makes him angrier, and he commits more to the course of action that she rejected. He is later seen in his car, watching her painting in the apartment building where she apparently now lives. It’s more than a little stalkerish and uncomfortable, but very believable as Brian descends further into his abyss and you wonder if the abyss itself is a little perturbed by the experience.
As you may expect from the absence of dialogue, much of this movie conveys emotions through body language. You have to recalibrate your senses for this experience, for Woo makes you lurch ever closer to muteness, giving you what must (of course) be only an approximation of never being able to speak yourself. You become focused on expressions, on gestures, on the way people move, to a degree most movies never really give you reason to, for words are far more direct. Here gesture does not ornament dialogue; it is dialogue. I’m impressed by the entire cast being able to do this; I’m also impressed by how the characters who are not directly hurt by this evil act also never speak, and it never feels forced. This would be gimmicky had a lesser director tried it (and inevitably failed), but Woo and company pull it off. I’m reminded of Aneesh Chaganty's 2018 film Searching, which also has a gimmick, but doesn’t let it feel like one.
The violence, then, is not prettified by the doublespeak sometimes used to make murder sound acceptable. It is bullets flying, oil burning, people dying in sprees. It is a wild, animalistic violence, the sort of carnage you would expect our prehistoric ancestors dealt on a regular basis, long before humanity fashioned its grunts into tongues. Even as cars ram into each other and machine guns are fired on full automatic, the movie is primal, refreshingly and enjoyably so.
The portrayal of the villains is interesting; they are street criminals, gangsters of the type that occur in many American cities. It is through opulence that they are characterized, especially their boss, with his glitzy suite adorned by something resembling a massive chandelier dominating the space. He gets a scene where he dances with his lover, a woman who herself gets in on the action in a spectacular sequence involving a stairwell. There’s tenderness here, of the sort that is evidence of a finely honed skill of dissociation, of trying to separate the nice things he can afford from the considerably less nice work that allows such luxury.
I do wonder, though, about the casting a bit. As in many action movies, the hero is white, while the goons who killed his child and whom he then hunts down are of many races. On the other hand, his wife is portrayed by a Colombian actress, and the good police officer is Black. I don’t know how good this is, but something about the whole thing irked me a bit. Not enough to ruin the movie, and I don’t think it was anything intentional (although I could certainly buy an executive demanding a white male lead for it to go through), but it felt unfortunate, on well-trod ground that need not be trod again.
All things considered, Silent Night was an invigorating experience. This is action cinema without the flourishes, without the frippery, with only the animalistic instinct that leads to taking each other’s lives senselessly and without reason. This is a film that is, on some level, honest, even if there are undoubtedly layers of Hollywood-ese in it, as Hollywood does. It’s the most unique action movie I’ve seen in a long time, and I recommend it for anyone interested in this genre.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.
Highlights: one particular action scene involving cars.
POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.