Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Silent Night

Written by Patrick Hao

40/100

Although Silent Night was filmed right before the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like a film in response to it. The film begins like a traditional Christmas movie. There are cloudy cool skies, saccharine Christmas pop plays on the radio, and an ensemble of people gather in a home to celebrate that time of year. If you had stopped watching the movie after 20-minutes, it would not be inconceivable to think you were watching a Love Actually/Love the Coopers knock-off. However, the twist in Silent Night is that this is going to be the last Christmas (and not the one that involves giving someone your heart) as a dangerous pink cloud caused by years of accumulated pollution is about to kill every person that is affected by it.

This dramedy, directed/written by Camille Griffin, is a visualization of the classic T.S. Eliot quote, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” As this group of friends and family gather at a nice British family cottage for the last time, it is the mundane that takes precedence as a distraction from existential dread. The hosts for this final Christmas soiree are Nell (Keira Knightley whose casting feels like a deliberate allusion to Love Actually) and Simone (Matthew Goode). They have three children including the youngest son Art played by Roman Griffin Davis from Jojo Rabbit being directed by his mom. His real-life brothers, Hardy and Gilby, play his older twin brothers as well, making this movie a real family affair.

The ensemble cast is filled with phenomenal actors, all who get short shrift by too many components and clichéd caricatures. There is Tony (Rufus Jones), his trophy wife Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) and their precocious daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie). There is the doctor James (Sope Dìrísù) who everyone silently judges for bringing the barely 20-year-old Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp). And finally, there is the lesbian couple of foul-mouthed Bella (Lucy Punch) and timid Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). The results are a The Big Chill-esque film of people oversharing and truth telling.

The film feels neither funny nor compelling in that way. A myriad of shrewd juxtaposition is set up by the film’s premise – Christmas/apocalypse – but the characters feel too thing to ever get at any visceral truths of the situation. There are maybe some chuckle-worthy moments throughout, especially the morbidity of end-of-life proceedings – especially one involving Coke.

The one person who gets any meat to play with is Roman Griffin Davis, who shows the talent of not being a one-film wonder with Jojo Rabbit. As everybody prepares to take the “Exit Pill” offered by the British government (“to die with dignity”), Art, with a melancholic tinge of idealism wonders if they have to be resigned to their faith. He plays Art with depth and emotional maturity.The rest of the Silent Night feels slight and underwhelming. Everything hints at a much better film from performances to even the clever double meaning of the title. But cleverness in thought can only go so far.

Silent Night was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and will release theatrically and on AMC+ in December.

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Malignant

Written by Alexander Reams

73/100

I can see a young James Wan watching a Giallo film, and thinking “Oh I’m gonna make some weird shit” (kudos to James Gunn and Chris Pratt for giving us that line). Throughout his career, Wan has riffed on many genres, and now we can add Giallo to that list. The iconic Italian horror genre was made popular in the 1970s, particularly by Dario Argento. James Wan takes the iconic genre and mixes it with modern themes and messages. Maddy (Annabelle Wallis) is in an abusive marriage with Derek (Jake Abel), she begins to experience visions of a sinister force and fights to protect herself and her family. 

This is not Annabelle Wallis’ first collaboration with James Wan, she was the lead in the spinoff to The Conjuring. Given that previous history, it seemed to reason that they would work together down the line, and here they offer up a beautiful metaphor for abuse and toxic relationships. Wallis not only conveys the past of her character but also (quite literally) embodies this person who is haunted by past memories and trauma. While she does not fully elevate the script to the iconic female horror leads we know and love, she still does more than the previous female characters in Wan’s repertoire, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Something Wallis and Wan both excel in is the brilliant horror sequences. Allowing for the pair, and DP Michael Burgess to present unique and original sequences which are unlike any I have seen. One in the early parts of the film mixes visual and practical effects to transform a house into another environment, and the metamorphasis is transfixing and spine-chilling. 

Wan’s relationship with Michael Burgess is a relatively new one, however, he has worked with Don Burgess, Michael’s father, many times, and with the younger Burgess just coming off another horror film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, following it up with a James Wan original just makes sense. Michael Burgess takes the potential shown in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and flies with it, demonstrating his brilliance as a DP, and a master of framing and camera movement. 

Even with all of this greatness, rarely is a film without flaws, and Wan’s latest offering is not without its faults. Akela Cooper, whose credits include Hell Fest, Luke Cage, and 2 other pictures that struggled in their writing serves as screenwriter. Cooper took a brilliant premise by the husband-wife duo of Wan and Ingrid Bisu and unfortunately wrote in watered down dialogue, which should be heartbreaking and is instead laugh-inducing at times. This half-baked screenplay doesn’t take away from what is happening in front of us. Wan doesn’t need dialogue to convey emotion, and this shines in the final act. Transforming the film into someone mind-bending, and full of heart and emotion. In this writer’s opinion, this is Wan’s most emotionally charged film. From the mother-daughter relationship to the sister relationship, all leading to the most unexpected reveal. Which ends the film on a somewhat positive note that also leaves the door open to future stories in this world, which excites this writer to no end.

Malignant Trailer

Malignant is currently playing in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.