Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writers: Pat Casey, Josh Miller
Cast: David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Cam Gigandet, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Edi Patterson, Beverly D’Angel
The holidays can be their own kind of hell, and some of the best Christmastime films capture the tension between the perceived warmth of the season and the frostiness of the people celebrating it. From Black Christmas (1974) to Home Alone (1990) to Krampus (2015), the tradition of single-location films capturing the discomfort of a group forced to adopt a polite veneer for the holidays as they're forced into close proximity with each other is a long one. In each, relationships splinter, resentments build and inane chatter punctuates the soundtrack. And that's before the intruders arrive.
Home-invasion dramedy Violent Night borrows heavily from its predecessors, and it's aggressive about underlining its references. The mindless consumerism and capitalist critique of Krampus, the inventive playfulness of Home Alone's booby traps — the film grabs these ideas with the greediness of a child writing a last-minute Christmas gift list, and with much the same thoughtlessness. In trying to split the difference between sleigh and slay, Violent Night falters. Its camp (zoom-ins of characters delivering silly lines with great dramatic flair) is undercut by all its cheesiness (terribly earnest speeches about the “meaning of Christmas”.)
What is the meaning of Christmas, anyway? It's an idea that takes on the shape of an existential crisis for Santa (David Harbour), a grouchy, binge-drinking, public-urinating, splayed mess who laments the public's loss of wonder and belief in the season, but also rewards an onlooker's awe with a load of projectile vomit to the face. On his annual gift delivery route, he finds himself caught in the middle of a home invasion and, bucketloads of blood later, realises that murdering hordes of personality-free bad guys is just what he needed to bring him back to life.
Too bad that this is a film that plots its fight scenes in terms of quantity, not quality. The action is gory, but too quick-cut to leave any discernible impact. The occasional strangulation by fairylights and death by Christmas tree ornament enlivens the lumbering proceedings, but not for long. It’s also hard to muster sympathy for the family whose home is invaded, exactly the kind of upper-class, one-percenter group that The White Lotus series and Knives Out films have had such fun satirising over the past few years, highlighting their elevated status before compelling audiences to root for their downfall. In Violent Night, these are awful people with shady Middle-Eastern deals and $300 million in a downstairs vault. Giving them a redemption arc instead of a well-deserved comeuppance? Read the room, writers. Each of these characters are broad stereotypes etched with minimal care, though one is such a pointed parody of Mark Wahlberg, down to his proclamation that 9/11 wouldn't have "went down like it did" were he on one of the planes, it’s hard not to imagine what a delight the film could’ve been had it committed to more skewerings of the verbal kind.
Violent Night does have a few floursishes, especially when it envisions murder as a group bonding exercise, or touches upon how the happiest time of the year can also be the loneliest. Ultimately, the embrace of a newfound family is enough to thaw Santa’s cold heart. But for this generic ode to festive sentiment, the devil’s in the missing details.