When do you exactly draw the line regarding how much you allow another person to irritate you? Some of us do this at the start of the relationship. Your significant other might cook things with a little too much salt, or they have a different way of folding the laundry than you’re accustomed to. In other ways, we might be so starved for friendship that we will overlook obvious dealbreakers for companionship. Speak No Evil, a psychological horror film by director Christian Tafdrup takes this concept to an uncomfortable apex. It’s an anxiety-turning exercise on what happens if we continually ignore our best judgment when monotony takes a whole of our lives.
Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are on a nice vacation in Tuscany with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). Throughout these spaces of time, Bjørn makes a quick acquaintance with Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) — nothing serious outside a few nods and a friendly exchange during a couples dinner. Soon after, the family meets Patrick’s partner Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son Abel (Marius Damslev), who has an impairment that impacts his speech. At first, everything seems not out of the ordinary. Each family is cautiously warm to each other, shares things about their Dutch and Danish backgrounds, and may have a couple of things in common. But not a conversation that would hint at a long-budding friendship.
The dynamic changes when Bjørn and Louise get a postcard from Patrick and Karin asking them to come to their house for a weekend in the Dutch countryside. Louise makes an overture about how weird this could be, but at the instance of her husband, she eventually warms up to the idea. We, as the audience, are immediately covered in dread, thinking something terrible is going to happen. Sune Kølster’s effective score blares with an ominous horn section, even when the film is within the most mundane setting. Bjørn and Louise go to see a school play Agnes is in, and something feels uneasy — particularly with Bjørn’s inner struggle. Cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen does an excellent job of capturing the facial expressions of discomfort he experiences throughout his regular day.
It may seem like this will be a getaway, resulting in the stereotypical horror violence we see in slashers. However, the story by Christian and Mads Tafdrup picks your tolerance levels apart in two aspects. First, this family is not at all what they seem, and cracks in the foundation show. They insist on feeding Bjørn and Louise meat, even though they made it clear they are vegetarians. Patrick and Karin are harsh when disciplining their son despite his disability. Then there’s just a matter of overall creepiness Patrick exudes in hanging around. Could it just be these families have different ways of living? Absolutely. Tafdrup works that unrelenting feeling of being a bother into the story well.
After all, a family invited you to stay at their place in the good graces of hospitality. You should be grateful. Well, this is something Bjørn struggles with mightily. There are enough red flags to cover a football field — but his urge to experience something outside his middle-class hamster wheel. It comes at odds with Louise’s common sense and a secret that Abel reveals to him. Tafdrup seems to want the audience to feel a frustration included in many horror films concerning knowing naïve people and bad situations — while also understanding why a person like this would go out of their way to be blind to the obvious.
There was only one way this would go: Speak No Evil‘s severe calamity of an ending. Its bluntness feels heavier because of how the plot reveals itself. Tafdrup puts everything in high gear and twists the definition of what we would consider a monster. We all have “gut instincts” for a reason, and sometimes, longing and guilt can go a long way to mask warning signs. Speak No Evil certainly takes its time to show you the horrible lesson beneath the smiles, but will have you yelling at the screen, imploring the leading players to act.
Photo Credit: Shudder