A sort of thought experiment about the worst possible things that could come about because of terminal politeness, Speak No Evil’s psychological horror is also one where the buy-in requires you to embrace the existence of self-destructive civility and an equal and opposite force willing to take every advantage of it. Writer/director Christian Tafdrup’s horror of manners can skillfully build tension, but some of its contrivances getting everything into place disrupt a film that otherwise conjures its dark powers from its itchy realism. If you’re prone to getting taken out of these kinds of things by leaps in logic made by characters that’ve never seen movies, Speak No Evil openly flaunts your pet peeves.
Maybe it’s a European thing. If Danish Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), parents in the midst of a mid-vacation midlife crisis, didn’t immediately accept the invitation to visit the too-charming Dutch couple they met in Tuscany—Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders)—like desperate and friendless people begging to be taken advantage of, then none of this would’ve happened. But they do. And it does. At least Bjorn and Louise’s daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) gets to play with the creepy and silent Abel (Marius Damslev). Hooray.
This dark jab at adult relationships, at how hard it is to make new friends and fulfill certain social needs when you’ve established your life in a specific way, has a high-level honesty to it. How many classes, dog parks and gyms serve as hunting grounds? And how different is ensnaring a potential pal from something a lot scarier? But Speak No Evil is a bit broader than that as its Dutch family slowly but surely annoys their houseguests. They play music too loud, they serve too much meat to the vegetarian Louise, they’re over-familiar with Agnes, they let loose with dancing, drinking and making out. The Danes are far too nice to take issue with these things immediately, opting instead to suppress their qualms until the bursting point. Respectively too presumptuous and too submissive, the couples are quick to project the bad times to come as they return again and again to the isolated countryside estate despite our vocal protests towards the screen.
Tafdrup’s cast is excellent as they endure/inflict increasingly grueling social faux pas: Burian’s multifaceted grin (shiteating to genuinely pleased to defensive) and Koch’s rattled expression cower under van Huet’s ursine stare (he looks like a particularly unhinged Dominic West). Patrick is increasingly abusive towards Abel. Karin is around, scary in her lack of definition as a character. Bjorn is just happy to be included. Louise, clearer-eyed than the rest, is ready to get the hell out of Dodge. Questioning why they do so doesn’t seem productive, especially as characters begin making decisions that go beyond any civility-gone-wild satire and into clueless, wanton self-flagellation. Instead, the escalation is the only point. Speak No Evil pays off the mounting dread and slowly confirms the reveal it’s been setting up, but never addresses any kind of motive beyond an arbitrary cruelty.
As a pessimistic hypothetical, a wicked little condemnation of modern mores juiced by a few shockingly violent money shots, Speak No Evil will find its fans. But the narrative hoops it leaps through in service of its final goal diminish so drastically in diameter that it’s almost more impressive that it manages to squeeze everyone through to its ending after all. Those looking for bleak, slow horror and who are willing to suspend plenty of disbelief might want to check it out, but it won’t rock the worlds of the rest of us.
Director: Christian Tafdrup
Writers: Christian Tafdrup, Mads Tafdrup
Stars: Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huet, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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