The pitch for the killer-Santa action-comedy Violent Night was probably incredible. The latest addition to the “dark, transgressive Christmas movie” canon combines the subgenre’s greatest hits: It’s basically Die Hard meets Home Alone, combined with some of the eat-the-rich satire that’s dominating cinema at the moment with movies like Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, and Glass Onion. And then, of course, there’s the inviting angle of Stranger Things star David Harbour as a drunken Santa Claus. Throw in Viking flashbacks, exploding torsos, Beverly D’Angelo, a Bryan Adams needle-drop, and a script by the writing team behind 2020’s airy Sonic the Hedgehog, and you have what, on paper, probably seemed like the greatest R-rated Christmas movie of all time. But it’s this exact emphasis on cleverness over coherence that makes Violent Night so lukewarm.
Some of Violent Night’s sequences do fulfill the premise’s promise. An opening sequence sets the stage for a film that’s very different from the one we actually end up with: Santa Claus (Harbour) — not a delusional pretender, but the man-myth himself — sits at a bar drinking himself horizontal. The magic is gone, he moans to the bartender. Kids these days are just as greedy and cynical as their parents. All they do is “want, crave, consume.” He chugs his beer and exits out a side door. The bartender follows him, yelling that the door goes to the roof, and patrons shouldn’t be up there. Once she reaches the top, she sees Santa taking off in his sleigh, and for a moment, her eyes widen. She believes in magic again — until she gets soaked in Santa puke.
This is the one moment where Violent Night’s cynical and starry-eyed threads successfully merge. For most of the movie, both are deployed in lazy ways. Whenever the writers and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters director Tommy Wirkola need to get out from whatever narrative corner they’ve painted themselves into, they lather on the earnest evocations of the magic of Christmas. Between those moments, withering sarcasm establishes an unearned sense of superiority. Much of the film’s affected edginess is directed at the Lightstones, the clan of über-wealthy assholes (and one relatively normal guy, because an audience always needs a surrogate) who gather for a dysfunctional Christmas celebration shortly after the film’s boozy cold open.
Matriarch Gertrude Lightstone (D’Angelo) is some kind of billionaire power broker — the exact nature of her work and wealth remains vague, but it’s clear that she isn’t someone to be fucked with. Gertrude’s acidic parenting style has warped her kids, particularly her daughter Alva (Edi Patterson, reprising her character from The Righteous Gemstones, right down to the similar last name). Alva is desperate for validation her mom can never provide, and her wannabe-action-star boyfriend Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet) and influencer son Bert (Alexander Elliot) are extensions of her own needy ego. By comparison, Lightstone son Jason (Alex Hassell) and his young daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) are remarkably well adjusted, but that may come down to the influence of Trudy’s mom, Linda (Alexis Louder).
On Christmas Eve, the Lightstone family is taken hostage by a gang of career criminals led by the Hans Gruber of the piece, a vicious, sharp-tongued baddie codenamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo). The crooks’ stated goal is to steal $300 million in cash from the Lightstone family vault. And if a few rich jerks die in the process? Oh well. The film doesn’t do a very good job arguing for why the audience should care whether the protagonists survive the night — it’s a mean-spirited film all around, so evoking basic human dignity is a bit of a cheat. But regardless of whether they deserve to be saved, Violent Night gives the Lightstones their own John McClane: Santa Claus, who’s also trapped in the Lightstone mansion after drunkenly falling asleep in a massage chair mid-cookie binge.
But Santa Claus isn’t much of a character to build a movie around, or at least Harbour’s version of him isn’t. Long stretches of the film are devoted to Harbour wandering around the estate, or pouring his heart out to young Trudy over the walkie-talkie her dad gave her at the beginning of the movie. (How Santa got the other radio is one of those “Uhhhh, magic?” moments, or maybe an editing issue.) The more time the movie spends with Santa, the less his motivations make sense. And the audience has a lot of time to think about these things — Violent Night slows to a crawl midway through, getting too talky and earnest for the script to bear.
The only time Harbour really clicks in the role is when he turns Santa into a yuletide WWE character, sneaking up behind bad guys with a wicked grin on his face, growling one-liners, and performing surgery on himself with a sewing kit. Midway through, a flashback to a Northman-style sequence reveals that Santa used to be a Viking warrior named Nicomond the Red, whose propensity for skull-smashing violence is conveniently triggered by the frightening circumstances of this particular Christmas Eve. It’s an amusing idea, so it’s really too bad that the actual action in Violent Night is so weak. It’s partially a choreography problem and partially a sound-effects problem, but either way, the result is like listening to music on a stereo with one broken speaker. By comparison, the horror splatter effects are juicy and satisfying, another inconsistency in this unfocused film.
Violent Night works best when it captures the warped sensibilities of early-’90s Chris Columbus movies, particularly Home Alone. It’s been pointed out so often that it barely needs to be said that the events of that film are actually horrifically traumatizing and violent, and that Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister is a pint-size sociopath. Little Trudy Lightstone has a sadistic streak in her, too, and the film’s most demented scenes are played with an outsized sense of cheer that effectively creates a sense of giggly discomfort. The difference here is that those moments are being engineered on purpose. The film has fun lobbing snarky one-liners and outrageous bloodshed at the audience, but on the whole, Violent Night’s big red bag of self-aware tricks is overstuffed.
Violent Night opens in theaters on Dec. 2.