2022 | not rated (R equivalent) | starring Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja Van Huet, Karina Smulders | directed by Christian Tafdrup |1 hr 37 mins | In Dutch and Danish with English dubbing and subtitles |
2022 Halloween Horrorfest
Speak No Evil falls in that category of horror film that plays it straight for a very long time, winding us up for the other shoe to drop and the horror gates to be unleashed in the final 5 minutes. This is a tricky balance, rarely pulled off well. It depends on how entertaining our bait plot is and how brutal and horrific the final switch is. The prototype for this might be European horror like Don’t Look Now or The Wicker Man and it’s seen in everything from Kill List to The Last Exorcism and movies that emulate those Euro-horror classics like Midsommar. In the hands of an inferior filmmaker it’s a story that has one good short story idea desperately stretching to fill feature length. 99% of the film following a character being mildly uncomfortable followed by the big reveal in the final minute where they walk outside in the middle of the night and find a human sacrifice pagan bonfire in the backyard. Cut to black.
However, there is something about the almost self-referential bare bones way that Speak No Evil rolls through this sub-genre that gives it a meta quality and there is a viciousness that director Christian Tafdrup executes it that makes it linger on the mind.
A young Danish family on vacation with their daughter, father Bjorn (Morten Burian) and mother Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet another family with a son, husband Patrick (Fedja Van Huet) and wife Karin (Karina Smulders) while on a vacation in Denmark. The four hit it off and the Dutch family invites Bjorn and Louise for a weekend in their house. Things start to go south through very small over-steps in social etiquette, Karin correcting Louise’s daughter and serving meat after being told Louise is a vegetarian. Patrick’s jokes ribbing Bjorn delivered with the slight edge of a bully. When Bjorn and Louise stay they’d like to leave early, Patrick and Karin are offended. When Patrick takes Bjorn out to scream into the wild, Bjorn takes to the male bonding.
This movie slowly progresses until the inevitable shoe falls. A lot of low budget films are like this. Recently, All My Friends Hate Me and the twisty Who Invited Them also trade in this kind of social paranoia. Everyone is misinterpreting human emotions and growing paranoid of their friends. Everyone is walking through the maze of pleasantries and manners just trying to keep the peace until they no longer can – and once the realize they can’t it’s too late. Speak No Evil is the movie of this set that packs the most punch. When the other shoe drops it is unflinchingly brutal. Clearly Patrick and Karin are playing their guests, even if we weren’t in a horror movie that unease would be there. It’s as if they know Bjorn and Louise have to be polite to them and are actively pushing to see how far they can get away with an obvious lie. But the plan they actually have up their sleeve is a doozy.
Their plan is also completely avoidable and easily defended against – and that’s the 2nd blow Speak No Evil lands at the same time. Our heroes walk right into their trap when all the warning signs are there, but they refuse to see them out of etiquette. In a lazier movie this would be the work of dumb characters being oblivious. But Tafdrup knows what he’s doing here. This film ends where those films do, but it does so with more contempt for Bjorn and Louise. Their undoing happens in slow motion at which point we are begged to ask Why? Why isn’t Bjorn fighting back or running away or protesting at all? Tafdrup has built that frustration into the film. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
My suspicion here is that Tafdrup is satirizing manners, social etiquette or political correctness. The desire by those to risk their own lives in order to either avoid an awkward situation or an attempt to keep the peace. That said, if you were to create a satire of Covid-era mass hysteria, Speak No Evil would play out no differently. This movie perfectly captures the feeling of watching people give up their rights, their autonomy and march willingly towards their own death if they are convinced there is a plan and fear the unknown of what might happen if they don’t. Patrick is even a doctor, or at least says he is. Trust him.
The viewing experience of Speak No Evil isn’t pleasant, whether you’re hit with the social anxiety of the awkward situations, the horrific reveals in the finale or the sheer tedium of 90% of the film seemingly going nowhere. The film isn’t what I’d call entertaining and it’s superficially lazy. If you aren’t dialed into what Tafdrup is trying to do here it’s going to frustrate and annoy. But it makes its point and it hits hard and leaves a mark on the way out.