Arts and Entertainment

Christmas Greetings and Christmas Beatings

Starring David Harbour as a murderous Santa Claus, Violent Night proves to be a ho-ho-whole lot of unconventional Christmas fun.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Rhea Malhotra

Good ol’ Saint Nick spends all year keeping tabs on the world, filling his naughty list with the names of every misbehaving person on Earth. Typically, those on his naughty list find a lump of coal in place of a present under the Christmas tree, but in Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night, Santa employs a new method to punish the especially naughty: murder.

A breath of fresh air from the typical sickeningly-sweet holiday film, Violent Night is a satirical thriller-comedy that puts an entirely new spin on Santa Claus. The film transforms the jolly old man that children have loved for centuries into a gruff, heavily-tattooed, no-nonsense ex-Viking-warrior-turned Kris Kringle. Played by David Harbour, this Santa isn’t afraid to kick some naughty list butt.

The movie opens with Santa chugging a glass of beer in a Bristol pub on the night of Christmas Eve, begrudgingly preparing for his strenuous one-night sleigh ride around the world. Meanwhile, a little girl named Trudy Lightstone (Lea Brady) is delightedly awaiting Christmas in her filthy-rich grandmother’s lavish mansion with her dysfunctional family when a group of mercenaries breaks in, hoping to steal 300 million dollars from the Lightstones’ family vault. Luckily for Trudy, Santa happens to pop through the chimney during the robbery and, after seeing that Trudy is on his nice list, sets out on a bloody path to ensure that Trudy lives on to see her next Christmas.

Though Violent Night's plot isn’t particularly sophisticated, it delivers exactly what it promises: a gory, chaotic film filled with unadulterated carnage and a ho-ho-whole lot of Christmas-themed quips. Mayhem follows Santa Claus as he serves justice by slaughtering the nefarious mercenaries, who all happen to be on his naughty list. The murders are bizarre and creative, ranging from electrocution by Christmas tree lights to bludgeoning with the help of a stocking filled with billiard balls. Even with the frequent fights and killings, the film manages to remain well-paced. While the cinematography of the fight scenes can be wearying at times, with the camera constantly whipping around in an attempt to immerse the audience in the action, these scenes are nicely spaced apart to allow for Christmas comedy and a needed break from the heavy onslaught of violence.

Yet among all the blood and battle is an ultimately triumphant tale of good against evil that carries just the right amount of sentiment. The movie is far from the Hallmark card-level cheesiness of most Christmas films, but it still manages to incorporate sincere moments between the wholesomely faithful Trudy and the gruff but goodhearted Santa Claus. They share several adorable interactions, such as when Trudy proclaims her wholehearted trust in Santa when he tries to reassure her via walkie-talkie. Since the movie is jam-packed with Santa’s valiant but brutal violence, the sparsely placed heartwarming scenes are all the more touching. The film also explores themes of kindness and growth as Santa, initially jaded and disenchanted with the world’s increasing materialism, regains his faith in humanity when the originally money-hungry Lightstones use stacks of dollar bills to kindle a fire to keep Santa warm while he is weakened from his injuries. Their sacrifice not only revives Santa but also his love for Christmas and mankind.

However, what really brings Violent Night’s premise to life is its immensely entertaining repertoire of characters. The strained, uber-rich Lightstone family consists of personalities from Gertrude (Beverly D'Angelo), the elderly family matriarch who cusses like a sailor, to Bertrude (Alexander Elliot), a social media-obsessed teenage influencer, who was named after his grandmother in the hopes of winning her favor. Their fierce and petty bickering in combination with their general ridiculousness makes for many humorous moments. Even Santa’s reindeer contribute to the hilarity. In one scene, Santa chastises them for being “so unprofessional” when they poop on the Lightstones’ roof, adding irritatedly, “Rudolph would never do this!” The head of the mercenaries, Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), brings lots of humor to the film with his villainously vulgar mouth and dry, witty one-liners.

David Harbour, of course, is the real star on the tree, delivering a superb performance as a grouchy, buff Santa Claus. From his scowling expressions to the heavy yet purposeful way he carries himself, Harbour leans fully into his role. Furthermore, his character carries a complexity that sets him apart from past murderous Santa characters. Fighting tirelessly to protect Trudy and her family, this Santa is the real deal, not some psychotic maniac in a red suit hell-bent on ruining the holidays. Though he is a murderer, Harbour’s Santa has a heart of gold, lending his character a bit of nuance.

Violent Night is undeniably funny and unique compared to most Christmas movies—but its largest drawback is the plot’s lack of originality compared to similar comedy-thriller Christmas films. It’s one thing to pay homage to previous films, which is something that Violent Night does with its extensive references to the holiday classic Home Alone (1990), such as when young Trudy sets gruesome Home Alone-inspired boobie traps for the mercenaries. It’s another thing to simply reuse ideas. The similarities between Violent Night and its predecessor, Die Hard (1988), which follows a policeman as he defeats a group of terrorists who interrupt a wealthy organization’s holiday party to rob money from their vault, are, unfortunately, too glaring to ignore. Violent Night feels almost as if Die Hard was stripped to its core and reconstructed with the addition of a grumpy Kris Kringle and a couple of foul-mouthed jokes. Though this plot works well for Violent Night’s humor, it leaves viewers wondering if the movie could have reached its fullest potential had it used more originality.

Still, the film is mostly successful in its comedy and in the box office, having raked in 13.3 million dollars on its first weekend. Ultimately, Violent Night is a wild holiday movie overflowing with creativity and Christmas fun, and what it lacks in plot depth and originality, it makes up for with a delightfully vengeful Saint Nick and obscene humor that is sure to make even the most miserable Scrooge chuckle.

Moral of the story: no funny business this holiday season, or you might just end up taking a sharpened candy cane to the head from Santa Claus!