According to Speak No Evil, the lines between comfort and distress, order and chaos, and happiness and terror aren’t great—and, in fact, can be as narrow as the difference between adhering to and rejecting social conventions. Christian Tafdrup’s brutally discomfiting horror film (Sept. 9 in theaters; Sept. 15 on Shudder) navigates that uneasy space, detailing how slight deviations from the norm are often as harrowing as—and also precursors to—outright violence. Resonating as the satiric offspring of Force Majeure and The Vanishing, it’s a thriller that depicts the path to hell as paved with minor transgressions.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary about the Tuscan getaway enjoyed by Bjørn (Morten Burian), his wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), nor about the request by fellow vacationer Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) to borrow the poolside lounge chair that Bjørn is using for his clothes and towel. During their ensuing stay, Bjørn and Louise strike up a friendly rapport with Patrick and his wife Karin (Karina Smulders) and son Abel (Marius Damslev), whose quietness is a byproduct, they eventually learn, of a birth defect that’s left him with a shortened tongue. When this retreat concludes, Bjørn and his clan return to Denmark and Patrick and his head back to Holland, although a postcard from the latter to the former convinces Bjørn to visit Patrick at his home. While Bjørn’s motivation goes unspoken, snapshots of him staring out a window, his reflection duplicated and fuzzy, and looking uncomfortable at school performances and dinner parties, suggest that he views Patrick as an opportunity for a new life—a notion enhanced by Patrick’s flattering praise of Bjørn.
Speak No Evil’s initial passages are rather mundane but it’s hard to feel at ease when Sune Kølster’s score routinely and ominously crescendos over otherwise tranquil domestic scenes. Something sinister is lurking beneath these everyday surfaces, and Tafdrup’s compositions—full of characters disconnected in the frame and oppressively dwarfed by their surroundings—enhance the mood of menacing alienation. Still, the true nature of the film’s malevolence remains difficult to identify.
Upon arriving at Patrick and Karin’s home, Bjørn and Louise are greeted warmly, even as they deal with a host of small, strange gestures on their hosts’ part, be it Karin half-heartedly responding to Louise’s gift (Little Mermaid-decorated coffee cups), vegetarian Louise being gently bullied into taking a bite of wild boar, or Agnes receiving a blanket and a pillow on the floor as a bed in Abel’s room.
None of these interactions are hostile, yet all of them are obviously off. Speak No Evil revels in such moments, which highlight the expectations polite men and women have when it comes to social interactions (and rules of decorum), and the tensions that arise when they’re disregarded. By the time Patrick roughly chides Abel for not moving out of the way so Agnes can use a playground slide, Louise has had enough of such weirdness, admitting to her husband that their new Dutch acquaintances are not “pleasant to be around.” Nonetheless, standards dictate that she continue to put on a happy face while in their company, no matter that this proves an increasingly difficult endeavor once Patrick and Karin ask them out to dinner at a restaurant and hire a babysitter without notifying them first, and then inappropriately dance and make out at the establishment.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” asks Bjørn early on in Speak No Evil, and that loaded question serves as a challenge that the movie sets for itself. Co-written with his brother Mads, Tafdrup’s script soon becomes a veritable test of Bjørn and Louise’s tolerance for awkward unpleasantness. That turns out to be quite high, such that even when they reach their apparent threshold, an unexpected twist—as well as Patrick’s pleading—keep the couple from abandoning their visit. Moreover, Bjørn can’t help but be not-so-subtly enchanted with Patrick’s boldness and openness. During a car ride to a remote sandy region, Patrick encourages Bjørn to expel his unhappiness (about who he is, and the life he’s chosen) in great big screams—an act that’s cathartic for Bjørn, an average man wrestling with feelings of voicelessness and powerlessness.
As its finale makes gruesomely plain, Speak No Evil is fundamentally about its protagonists’ inability (or unwillingness) to speak up—and out—about their misery and disgust, and the way in which that silent reticence makes them easy marks for the uninhibited and amoral. Tafdrup’s film is a psychological nightmare with an underlying political statement about the perils of playing by the rules when your opponent doesn’t accept that there are any. Thankfully, it avoids overtly articulating its ideas throughout, generating its dreadful atmosphere via a series of relatively unexceptional scenarios (a drive home from a night out; a dance performance by kids for their parents) that veer off into startling areas. Led by a uniformly strong cast and, in particular, a Huêt performance that’s unsettling precisely because, for long stretches, it can be read in two totally different ways, it’s a cautionary tale about the unreliability of comforting customs, which can be easily demolished by those unencumbered by accepted values and rituals.
So skillfully does Speak No Evil build toward its madness that it’s a shame it can’t quite stick its landing. Bjørn and Louise’s fate is predictably nasty, but whereas director Tafdrup intends their climactic passivity to be a reflection of their timid and compliant-to-a-fault personalities, it instead comes across as stunningly nonsensical. There’s a point at which even the weakest and most cowardly individuals ultimately fight back, and yet in its closing stanzas, the film opts for storytelling choices that work thematically far more than they do narratively. It’s the only point at which the proceedings tip over into preposterousness, asking the audience to buy character behavior that—regardless of the shrewd preceding set-up—is dumb and unbelievable by any reasonable standard.
Consequently, Speak No Evil is a pointed critique that opts to take the easiest route available. Its censure and despair are legitimate and relevant, but in its last steps, it forgets that the message is only as good as the method by which it’s delivered.