Directed by Christian Tafdrup and co-written with his brother Mads, “Speak No Evil” is a film where the kindness of strangers is something that should be sidestepped, as two families (one Danish, one Dutch) learn after meeting on holiday.
Premiering as part of the festival’s “Midnight Selection” category, this is director Tagdrup’s first film (after two tries) to be selected for Sundance.
Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are vacationing in Italy with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) where they meet Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) and their young son Abel (Marius Damslev).
The two couples get along very well and once Bjørn and Louise return home, they receive an invitation in the mail from their new vacation buddies to come stay a few days in the Dutch countryside.
One wouldn’t call their first night full of gaiety, but it is pleasant enough. It is the second night where thing turn, discomfort sets in slowly as Louise begins to feel uneasy around Patrick and Karen, the hosts seem a bit “off” and become more so as the days and night go on.
Patrick and Karen have a strange household. Their home is comfortable. The couple have a strange way of dealing with Abel. He is an unusually quiet child, except when he screams himself to sleep. His parents almost ignore him and are not exactly loving.
After an aborted attempt at sneaking away and going home, the two couples seem to find a middle ground. Bjørn and Louise decide to stay. Bad idea. Boundaries are crossed and tensions rise.
The horrors in this film are (for a time) more of the psychological chamber drama variety that one would find in the thrillers of Roman Polanski or Bryan Forbes.
There is an ambiguity regarding why Bjørn keeps accepting Patrick’s apologies. He catches catch him in a lie regarding his occupation, he tricks Bjørn into paying for a dinner that Patrick and Karen invited them to and ignores respectful requests to lower loud music. We aren’t sure why Bjørn keeps giving in to this strange man, but the screenplay is committed to keeping us enthralled with finding the answer.
Tafdrup slowly peels off the layers of the mystery of just what Patrick and Karen may be up to. He doesn’t toy with his audience but causes us to hold our breath in fear until things become relentlessly grim.
Director Tafdrup uses his slow burn first half as if he is slowly pulling a raft across a calm river while trying to make no ripples. There are no fancy angles or visual tricks. Erik Moleberg Hansen keeps his camera steady, making sure the film keeps its quiet cool while Sune Kølster’s unnerving score stalks the film quietly until the orchestrations become bigger as the tension builds.
It is the in the final act where audiences will be completely divided. One will find it either brutally frightening or a ridiculous cop out.
I am divided. While the emotionally disturbing impact of the film’s final moments cannot be denied, I felt Tafdrup lost control of his characters. People start making lunkheaded decisions that go against the way their characters are designed. Spoilers prevent me from expounding further on the events of the film’s final moments, but my issues lie in the actions (or inactions) of Bjørn and Louise. I can only say that a husband and father should fight harder.
Is the ending a cheap thrill? No. The film is seeking a bit of poetry in its finale and seems to be saying something about the revelation of the real person inside us. The brutality may hide that just a bit, but if viewers let the final shots flow over them, Tafdrup’s intentions become clearer.
“Speak No Evil” is one hell of a film that finds a commentary on how human beings behave in situations that take us out of our normal behavior patterns. This one is extremely well-crafted and performed and will have audiences paralyzed with fear.
Does the finale work? For some it will. Others may recoil. Time will tell
“Speak No Evil” has been acquired by Shudder (AMC Networks’ premium streaming service for Horror) and will premiere Fall 2022.