'Speak No Evil' Review: Christian Tafdrup's Deranged Horror Film is a Masterful Exercise in Tension [Sundance]

Society teaches you to be polite. If someone offers you an oatmeal cookie, for example, you’re probably going to say, “Thank you,” and take it, even if you really dislike those chalky, unsatisfying discs. We’re accustomed to letting things slide, especially as we get older; rocking the boat, so to speak, is generally frowned upon. But what if that politeness can be weaponized against you? What if a predator can use your innate desire to keep the status quo intact to prey upon your family? Welcome to the utterly disturbing, horrific story of Christian Tafdrup’s Danish psychological thriller, “Speak No Evil” – and brace yourself for one of the most deranged, unsettling films you’ll see all year.

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On a family trip in Tuscany, Bjorn (Morten Burian) is enjoying the sun and beauty of Italy with his wife, Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter, Agnes. Everything is going great. In fact, they’ve just met a really sweet family: Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), his wife, Karin (Karina Smulders), and their son, Abel. The two families mingle, they eat dinner together, they laugh, they drink. It’s just the type of thing you hope for when you vacation abroad.

Months later, when Bjorn and his family are back in Denmark, they receive a postcard from Patrick and his family, inviting them to their home in Holland’s beautiful countryside. Bjorn insists they go because otherwise, he says, “it would be impolite.” Plus, as Louise notes: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Oh, sweet Louise and Bjorn. The worst is so much more unsettling and terrifying than you can even imagine. Directed by Tafdrup, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Mads Tafdrup, “Speak No Evil” fits perfectly alongside the likes of Ari Aster‘s “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” This isn’t a film filled with jump scares and gallons of blood. Instead, “Speak No Evil” is a feature that will get under your skin, clawing its way deeper each minute – just like the sparse but ominous score from Sune “Køter” Kølste, which assaults the audience more and more as the film progresses. 

As the families begin to mingle once again in Holland, things don’t immediately go to Hell. Sure, there are awkward moments as Bjorn and his wife begin to realize that they don’t know a ton about these strangers whom they only briefly met in Tuscany. Sure, Patrick and Karin exhibit a bit too much PDA on the dance floor after drinking at a restaurant. Yes, Patrick plays his music a little too loud in the car and might have driven while tipsy. And okay, they forgot that Louise is a vegetarian and constantly try to feed her meat. And little Abel doesn’t talk much, but that’s because he has a congenital issue with his tongue. These are just social faux pas, right? Not signs of impending doom. 

Here lies the beauty of “Speak No Evil.” Each social interaction between the two families is unbelievably awkward, but not obviously concerning. It’s the type of cringe-inducing situation that makes you want to immediately walk out of the room and not experience another second of it – not the kind that makes you think you’re surrounded by people who wish ill upon you. But as the film progresses, the social miscues build and build, and Bjorn’s politeness is pushed to the extreme. Bjorn doesn’t want to abruptly leave and make Patrick’s family feel inadequate – and yet there is something undeniably awry.

The acting helps sell this uncomfortable situation incredibly well. Burian is absolutely perfect as the ineffectual father who willfully puts his family in bad positions simply to make sure he doesn’t rock the boat. But it’s Van Huêt who steals the show as Patrick, a somewhat menacing and stern father who is just too damn charming to ever think twice about. There’s a moment in the film when Patrick puts everyone at ease by explaining the reasons for the social faux pas, and Van Huêt plays it in a way that makes the viewer sit back and think that maybe he really is a good guy. As it enters the third act, the film comes down to what is, in essence, a two-hander between Burian and van Huêt, and both men are just wonderful and easily step up to the challenge. 

Tafdrup expertly builds tension and suspense, leaving the audience breathless with anticipation. And when the twist finally comes in the third act, it’s utterly shocking and disturbing. When you realize what the film has been building towards, you are suddenly held captive, forced to watch the events unfold and knowing there’s nothing you can do to help. It’s a feeling comparable to the end of Aster’s “Midsommar,” when you realize that everything happening in front of you was ultimately inevitable. And yet that doesn’t make it any less horrifying. 

“Speak No Evil” might not be a thrill-a-minute film, but it’s effective in a way that many horror movies just aren’t anymore. Watching it evokes the feeling of inching closer and closer to the end of a cliff; at any moment, you feel like you might still escape the situation until you eventually reach the point of no return. After watching “Speak No Evil,” you may suddenly decide to be the kind of person who says, “No, thank you” to that oatmeal cookie. Because being impolite today might save you tomorrow. [A-]

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