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‘Speak No Evil’ Review: Hell may be other people, but who decides how we get there?

The amusingly grim Sundance stunner arrives on Shudder this week.
Credit: Shudder

TEXAS, USA — One family’s humility is another’s extortion in Danish director Christian Tafdrup’s “Speak No Evil.”

A dexterous European thriller so caustically effective that you may find yourself casting the inevitable Hollywood remake in real time, the movie tracks a couple’s halfhearted weekend trip to visit a family they briefly encountered on an idyllic Italian summer where they were otherwise perfectly content keeping to themselves and their young daughter. The truth is Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) would like nothing better than to pretend the mailed invitation never arrived, but “it would be too impolite to decline.” 

That eagerness to please will shape the horror of manners to come, Tafdrup’s taut direction manifesting an isolated hell of one’s own making so utterly believable that it almost ruptures the limits of fiction. At least, right up until the discomfort of familiar intrapersonal surrender slips into one of the year’s most harrowing codas. 

Bjørn and Louise don’t approach the world like Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) do, and they sure don’t navigate it the same way. The sprightly latter couple would rather be on their feet for a good time, while the even-keeled Bjørn and Louise can’t stand the loud music and look like they haven’t danced together in years. When the guests arrive, the hosts cheerfully show where their daughter will sleep: In the corner of their mute son’s room, on a mattress barely bigger than a shoebox. 

The families are like shattered-glass reflections of each other – right down the uncanny similarities in their appearance – with wildly divergent standards for how to act in the presence of near-strangers, making for a wholly involving exercise in cringe-cinema that’s all the more credible for how Sune Kølster’s bombastically vicious musical score and the abyss-like shadows captured by cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen accentuates Patrick and Karin’s passive hostility in major-key. 

What's most impressive is that the ominously crafted, fantastically acted “Speak No Evil” needn't rely on cheap tricks of perspective. For the first 80ish minutes of this 97-minute movie it’s all out in the open – the nervous acquiescing of having your child stay with a babysitter you've never met, the crumbling of domestic contracts for the sake of ostensibly good company – and the movie takes that confidence to increasingly uncomfortable extremes. It also serves to further condemn Bjørn and Louise for having committed themselves to the illusion of choice. Out of the acute social anxiety that infects this movie like a mold that’s gone ignored until it’s spread too far blooms a timely parable for our pandemic-emergence times. Now that it’s relatively safe to interact with strangers, are we equipped to? Are we sure we even want to? 

Because the movie refuses to coat itself in simpler dramatic tensions, “Speak No Evil” (written by Tafdrup and his brother, Mads) succeeds at turning the audience into a complicit third wheel. The viewer’s judgements are weaponized against them, pulling us into the social warfare quietly erupting with every side-eye glance and tight-lipped dismissal. One skin-crawling confrontation sees Patrick interrogating Louise over labeling herself a vegetarian when she eats fish, and the standoff is all the pricklier for both sides refusing to speak their minds (and for how Patrick barely registers his remarks as being confrontational at all). In scenes like these, it’s the microscopic changes in the eyes of the performers of this movie’s small but mighty ensemble that toxifies everything happening on the periphery.

It should be noted that for all its clenching tension, “Speak No Evil” is also quite funny, even if the laughs are merely a conduit to keep eventual terrors at bay; screams of “Don’t go in there!” become “Speak up, damnit!” At its most thematically intriguing and conceptually layered, Tafdrup uses the two families’ dangerously asynchronous dynamic to chisel away at the relationship between Bjørn and Louise, and what the doldrums of married life have done to them. One revelatory scene between Bjørn and Patrick near the midway point sees the movie’s Lanthimosian qualities briefly intermingling with the textures of a Ruben Östlund joint; envy is introduced into the equation, and it only serves to further wrap individual sequences in barbed wire. 

It’s when that wire is tight enough to draw blood in the movie’s final 15 minutes that “Speak No Evil” transitions into a far bleaker mode. The movie’s finale removes any spare inch of space for nervous laughter, opting instead for a brief but eternal-seeming darkening of the cinematic soul. Far be it from me to say it isn’t effective when I paced around and all but splashed cold water on my face as the credits rolled, but “Speak No Evil” also doesn’t make a convincing enough argument for its final turn—not after the movie so effectively instructs us that it isn’t evil intentions that are to be deciphered, but the paradoxical ways we set ourselves up for evil to ensnare us. There's perhaps no other way for "Speak No Evil" to conclude, but the plummet isn't as tantalizing as the creep to the edge. 

"Speak No Evil" is now streaming on Shudder, and screening in some theaters. Not rated. Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes. 

Starring Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders

Directed by Christian Tafdrup; written by Christian and Mads Tafdrup

2022

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