I love it when movies don’t explain their lore, but simply let us live in their world and absorb details through visual storytelling. This is one of the elements Violent Night has in common with John Wick. Like that movie, Violent Night doesn’t waste time on exposition. There are simply facts of this world, one of which is that Santa Claus is some kind of cursed barbarian raider. What curse? Who did it? Can it be broken? Why was it cast? None of that matters, so no one wastes their breath on it. It's just a weird piece of lore we absorb and move on. Love that for us. Love that for the movie. (Violent Night also shares a producer with John Wick; David Leitch, who co-directed Wick, produced Violent Night.)


I also love that for David Harbour, who is having an absolute ball playing this cursed Santa Claus, a man doomed(?) to deliver presents to kids every Christmas as some kind of penance, I think, for being a bad guy in the Dark Ages. What I don’t love for anyone—audience or David Harbour—is how uneven Violent Night is. The final thirty minutes are the action slaughter-fest advertised in the trailer, but everything leading up to that teeters between good, bad, and worse. The good is Harbour, who is so imminently watchable he can make you feel the fun he’s having, and decisions like not overburdening the film with too much explanation. Santa has a dark past, that’s how he knows how to kill people, the end. Solid, lean storytelling. The good is also the action scenes—the fights are legit great. 

But Violent Night has a split personality. It feels like a film that was meant to be very dark, but ends up selling out its own premise. While homages to Die Hard and Home Alone fit right into the “dark Christmas movie” trend Violent Night plays into, the ending totally wimps out. Early on, the film, scripted by Pat Casey & Josh Miller, sets up that the Lightstone family is abominable. Matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo, a clever bit of casting nodding to a modern Christmas classic with Christmas Vacation), is a horrible bitch who openly loathes her children. Daughter Alva (Edi Patterson) is a suck-up with a dumb bunny B movie star husband, Morgan (Cam Gigandet, nailing the bit), and a dumb bunny influencer son, Bert (Alexander Elliott). Son Jason (Alex Hassell) is a worm whose wife is leaving him. The only ray of light in the family is Jason’s daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady), who is still young enough to believe in Santa.


It seems like Violent Night was supposed to have an “eat the rich” mentality, because the Lightstones are so awful it’s part of the comedy. The first half of the movie makes you want to see these characters get their comeuppance, with the exception of Trudy and her mom, Linda (Alexis Louder). But Violent Night chickens out and goes for half-assed redemption instead, which is not only unearned, but undercuts the catharsis of seeing awful people get their just desserts. It's like if Ransom Drysdale got away with it in Knives Out, or everyone walked out of the Hawthorne restaurant in The Menu okay. The Lightstones are set up to fail just like the Thrombeys, but Violent Night sells out its own concept in favor of a softer landing for a weak message about Christmas spirit.

Who needs Christmas spirit in an R-rated action movie?! No one, that’s who. But again, it screams studio notes. Director Tommy Wirkola at least lends the film some decent B-movie style—it plays like Santa’s Slay except everyone actually knows how to make a movie—and again, Harbour is having so much fun, as is John Leguizamo, that Violent Night remains watchable even as you can feel it pissing away it’s shot at a harder-edged ending. And the Home Alone homage really is chef’s kiss perfection. The finale of Violent Night is so good, I bet most people won’t care about the choppy storytelling before that, because the climactic action is just so fun and over the top. But it bugs me that this movie clearly has a strong premise, a good sense of just how much story to tell to get to the action, and perfect casting, only for it to tack on a wishy-washy resolve it did not need. It’s so close to falling into classic Christmas horror like Krampus and Rare Exports, but those movies don’t chicken out on their own dark premises. Alas, Violent Night does and the result is a mediocre B-movie. Oh well. At least we’ll always have David Harbour as Zaddy Claus.

Violent Night is now playing exclusively in theaters.