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).