I love horror films, but they don’t scare me. When I was a kid, a zombie-themed episode of “The Greatest American Hero” left me unable to sleep for weeks. But these days I am immune to the undead, spiders crawling out of eyeballs and all manner of other jump scares.
If anything, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become even more vulnerable to awkward silence and ritual self-humiliation.
But there is an onscreen genre that does still keep me up at night: embarrassment comedy. If anything, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become even more vulnerable to awkward silence and ritual self-humiliation. Eldritch horrors scare the kids. The middle-age tremble at the grotesque faux pas.
Director Camille Griffin understands that watching someone get their face torn off is often less upsetting than watching someone socially faceplant. As a result, her brilliant new end-of-the-world comedy, “Silent Night,” is more genuinely bleak than most zombie apocalypses. The true horror is not that all the social rules crumble in the face of bloody catastrophe. It’s that they don’t.
“Silent Night” is set in a near future in which the earth has experienced massive environmental collapse. Poisonous storms sweep the landscape, and everyone caught in them dies in hideous agony. The British government has issued euthanasia pills to (almost) everyone so they can die with less pain. Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband, Simon (Matthew Goode), host one last Christmas party for a group of their school friends. It’s like “The Big Chill,” except everyone dies. “The Big Chill” loved its aging boomer cast and their nostalgic friendships. “Silent Night” is colder and less forgiving. Its characters certainly have charm; Simon running around the yard haplessly trying to free the chickens, and looking much like a chicken himself, is adorable. So is Tony (Rufus Jones) enthusing about how fun it was to break into a store.
But while the end of the world is freeing in some ways, for the most part the old gang remains locked in their same old squabbles and blinkered affluence. Nell and her determinedly selfish friend Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) continue to make catty comments about James (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) and his younger girlfriend, Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp). Bella (Lucy Punch) continues to talk over and dismiss her girlfriend, Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). And the parents continue to spend a great deal of energy trying to justify their generation’s poor choices, both to themselves and their children. “We just want to make you understand that as your parents, we are not to blame,” Nell says with great earnestness, as Sandra nods along.
The kids, especially Nell’s son, Art (Roman Griffin Davis), are skeptical. And with good reason. The adults have spectacularly screwed up the world, and with death now well inside the door, they continue to scrabble toward the usual petty fortresses of disavowal, deceit and one-upmanship.
Art gradually reveals himself as the film’s foul-mouthed moral center (his parents have given him permission to curse on his last day on earth, though they keep forgetting and reflexively reprimand him). He is particularly concerned about the impending suffering of the undocumented immigrants and homeless people who don’t have access to euthanasia pills.
The adults have no answers for him. That’s in part because they’ve given in to despair. But even in death there are hierarchies. Everyone intends to hold onto their privilege until the very last.
One of the most painful scenes involves a dinner-table argument in which Sophie and Sandra fight over whether it’s less tragic for old people to die. It’s a family gathering nightmare, with an extra twist of ageism and futile despair.
While the end of the world is freeing in some ways, for the most part the old gang remains locked in their same old squabbles and blinkered affluence.
The kids are no less invested in keeping everyone in their place with their last breaths. Art’s twin siblings measure out their sips of soft drink to make sure neither has more than the other.
They’re persnickety, irritating and competitive even in the face of Armageddon.
There’s a certain nobility in clinging to everydayness and caring about soda even to the end, just as there’s a certain nobility in giving Christmas gifts or playing charades as death approaches. There’s even something low-key admirable about holding onto the backbiting and the grievances. Nell and her friends are going to be themselves, at their best and their worst, to their very last minute.
But the stubborn refusal to let go is also why they’re in this predicament in the first place. Nell just can’t stop picking at Sophie; Bella just can’t communicate with Alex. In a pandemic and in a climate crisis, humans still grind their axes, even if they know the edges will eventually be buried in their own skulls.
The humor in “Silent Night” is often sharper than that axe. Embarrassment comedy is uncomfortable because it’s a genre of self-inflicted wounds. In “Silent Night,” parents, children, friends, family, neighbors, loved ones and acquaintances humiliate themselves to death, and worse than death. It’s hard to watch because we’re watching it all the time.