To go to “Violent Night” is to know you’ll be served catfish instead of caviar. After two long hours, you get food poisoning instead.
Tommy Wirkola’s blood-soaked holiday blizzard follows Santa Claus (David Harbour) as he rescues an uber-wealthy family from a team of mercenaries holding them hostage on Christmas Eve. Any movie that this concept brings to mind — “Die Hard,” “Home Alone,” the Hallmark oeuvre — is likely to be more enjoyable than the tonally incoherent fruitcake that is “Violent Night.”
Frothy and good-willed, most Christmas movies rarely have enough salt to brine a cucumber. But “Violent Night” spikes, sears, smothers and smokes its family-friendly conceit. The film wears its R rating like a scarlet letter etched in blood; the tangy metallic stench boasts top notes of obsequious gore and base notes of desperation as Wirkola trawls for edginess.
Harbour’s jaded Santa is a far cry from the familiar jolly old Saint Nick. Santa starts Christmas Eve in a bar. He’s drunk and disenchanted because children, nice and naughty alike, have asked Santa to bring them cash for Christmas. Between belches, he slurs, “This whole planet runs on greed.”
If this remark flashes a North Star of social criticism, “Violent Night” is quick to snuff it out. Parallel to the Santa plot, the film introduces the Lightstone clan: Jason (Alex Hassell), his weary wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their spirited young daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Jason brings his family to spend Christmas with his filthy rich, foul-mouthed mother Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) as well as his money-grubbing sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her husband (Cam Gigandet) and their brainless influencer son (Alexander Elliot).
“Violent Night” is a story of captivity, but the abduction starts before any home invasion — and not just for the audience. The Lightstones are insufferable, and their monotonous misery is infectious. They hire an enormous staff to work their dysfunctional reunion; the visibility of the staff’s pain is one of the film’s more incomprehensible decisions, especially after the mistreated employees are revealed to be undercover mercenaries on a mission to steal the 300 million dollars tucked away on Gertrude’s estate.
In a cage match between unlikeable one-percenters and a band of Christmas codenamed vigilantes led by John Leguizamo, it’s baffling to assume audiences would root for the former. Then again, Christmas movies are for eating frosted cookies, not the rich: Enter Santa, the bourgeoisie’s gritty, hammer-wielding Christmas miracle.
Abandoned by his reindeer, Santa is forced to rout his way through Mr. Scrooge’s (Leguizamo) acolytes. The film becomes a revolving door of single combat where Christmas accoutrement becomes Santa’s artillery: He uses tree toppers as ninja stars and fairy lights like a noose; he pummels bad guys with a stocking full of pool balls and shivs them with a filed down candy cane. Gore in this film is incessant but also indulgent, which frays the more sentimental thread that runs through. (“Violent Night” could also describe an editors’ job to stitch this movie together.)
When it isn’t a Santa slasher, “Violent Night” slows down to show off Saint Nick’s sensitive side. Between his kills, he occasionally reminisces about former glory as a Scandinavian warrior, but he mostly talks with the doe-eyed Trudy through a magical pair of walkie-talkies.
Trudy is trapped in the living room with the rest of her unbearable family but buoys on unflappable holiday spirit. She’s a cookie-cutter Christmas kid, making the Nice List for laughably mundane feats including: “Kept room clean,” “Kind to animals” and, this writer’s favorite, “Invited weird kid to party.” If Santa thinks avarice erodes Christmastime virtues, his sympathies change between children in different tax brackets, and his favorites seem to be kids with cash to burn — literally.
Bad movies are fun when they’re in on the joke, but “Violent Night” can’t square tinsel-toned earnestness with insatiable bloodlust. Harbour doesn’t reach the dock with this role, but it’s admittedly difficult to say, “Santa Claus is coming to town,” and then present him as a gritty anti-hero and a homicidal alcoholic.
Wirkola scorches chestnuts on an open fire until they burn and become lumps of coal. Any winter wonderland in “Violent Night” is ultimately a wasteland.