Sundance Review: Speak No Evil
Drawing from the Michael Haneke school of upsetting social dynamics, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil essentially plays like of a comedy of manners with a horror overlay — as he twists the screw further and further, Tafdrup plays on our genre expectations, patiently delaying the seemingly inevitable until the audience starts to second guess their well-founded expectations.
Speak No Evil starts as these films often do: with a family on vacation. While visiting Italy from Denmark, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) encounter the charismatic Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). The families get along well for the few hours they spend together, and when Bjørn and Louise receive an invitation several weeks later for them and their young daughter Agnes to visit Patrick, Karin, and their son Abel in the Dutch countryside, they — with some trepidation — take them up on the offer. But as the weekend progresses, Bjørn and Louise are faced with the question of whether Patrick and Karin’s increasingly off-putting behavior should be chalked up to mere cultural differences or something more sinister.
What Tafdrup cleverly taps into with this setup is (1) the tricky dance of making new friends as an adult and (2) the compulsion of politeness: who among us hasn’t been in an uncomfortable situation where your instincts say leave but the urge to be friendly and not rock the boat leads you to stay long past the point where it makes sense. By slowly ramping up Patrick and Karin’s antisocial behavior, Tafdrup mostly negates the age-old horror movie question — “why don’t they just leave” — and forces us to find Bjørn and Louise’s attempts to stick it out at least somewhat understandable.
Even as we empathize, however, the film ensures that we’re continuously feeling an anxious tingling in our spines. Sune Kølster’s ominous score regularly raises one’s hackles, and cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen utilizes a washed out and shadowy color palette — cold outside, oppressive inside — to heighten the chilling mood. Tafdrup’s cast commits as well, with van Huêt and Smulders gleefully alternating between obnoxious, creepy, and faux-wounded, while Burian and Koch excellently play up their understandable distress. Burian in particular stands out as he nicely embodies the conflict-averse adult — simultaneously relatable and pitiable.
I won’t spoil any specifics here, but it is noteworthy that the film’s third act takes several turns that simply won’t be for everyone — I’ll admit I wasn’t sure where I landed until days later. But like good societal horror should, Speak No Evil burrows under the skin and stays there, impossible to fully shake. Despite some narrative contrivances and tonal shifts, the film succeeds because the kernels of truth it lays bare prevent you from writing it off. It’s easy to watch a movie like this and think “well, that would never be me.” Tafdrup prompts us to interrogate that assumption, and — to my dismay — I’m not sure many of us will feel too comfortable about the conclusions we might reach.