This review of Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
Too much of anything can be a bad thing. Too much water and you might just drown. Too much sugar and you’re likely to lose a foot or two. Too much ignorance and you’ll probably vote Republican. But too much kindness? Is it possible to be too nice in an attempt to avoid insulting or upsetting someone? Speak No Evil suggests that not only is it possible, but it might just be your undoing. Of course, a lack of common sense and boundaries might be a big part of the problem too.
Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are a Danish couple on vacation in Italy with their young daughter when they meet and hit it off with a Dutch family of three. Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) are charismatic and fun-loving, and after a few months pass they reach out with an invite to visit them at their home in Holland. The Danes agree, but their arrival is soon followed by minor annoyances and inconveniences. Patrick insists pescatarian Louise try a bite of roast boar. Karin sets a bed for Bjorn and Louise’s daughter on the floor of their son’s room without asking. Patrick stiffs Bjorn with the bill for an expensive night out.
Each slight arrives with a hair more weight than the last — they leave a male babysitter with their daughter, Patrick nonchalantly walks into the bathroom while Louise is showering — and each is taken and eaten without complaint by Bjorn and Louise. They’re guests after all and wouldn’t dream of offending their hosts. But then those slights escalate…
Speak No Evil is played completely straight, but if taken at face value it is most assuredly guaranteed to anger and annoy viewers instead of thrilling and unnerving them. Watch it as the grim satire it is, though, and director/co-writer Christian Tafdrup‘s brutal commentary on societal kindness — whether due to naivete or a fear of offense — hits with dark laughs and maybe even a wince or two. That said, even that extension will make some of what transpires difficult to swallow.
The script, co-written by Mads Tafdrup, affords Bjorn and Louise an overabundance of red flags and opportunities to “escape.” Anyone who’s seen their share of genre films, including the likes of Funny Games (1997/2007) and Nothing Bad Can Happen (2013), will see what’s coming long before our protagonists do, and it’s undeniably frustrating seeing them miss and dismiss such obvious signs of impending trouble. What’s necessary to note, though, is that unlike those films, the issues here escalate slowly. The Danes accept the smallest of offenses and forgive slightly bigger ones too easily, and by the time things escalate their pattern of compliance has been well established.
Speak No Evil works well enough on its own terms, but audience annoyance is almost certain by the time things come to a head. All four lead performances are solid and effective at their goals with Burian and Koch convincing as a soft couple unused to rocking the boat with conflict or impoliteness. Their forgiving behavior grows somewhat exaggerated — again, not played over the top but unavoidably so all the same — leaving viewers little to hold onto or understand. What’s far easier to grasp, though, is the low-key menace emanating from Van Huet and Smulders. They’re casually charismatic, but you know there’s something brewing underneath even before you *know* there’s something underneath.
Tafdrup and cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen shoot an attractively ominous film finding an uneasy atmosphere in otherwise welcoming landscapes and domiciles. Sune Kølster‘s score adds its own sinister touch even over images that feel innocuous. It’s a well-crafted thriller building to a fantastic final line of dialogue — seriously, it almost rivals “Because you were home” from The Strangers (2008) — but as with every other element that delivers it’s held back by what the script asks of viewers.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” asks someone in Speak No Evil, and we know all too well what the answer is going to be. The poor Danish couple aren’t as savvy, though, and while their earlier choices can be forgiven it soon crosses a line (or eight) into silliness. It tests your patience, but it’s their journey into hell, not yours, and it’s one fueled by their choices, actions, and inactions. The horror genre is filled with characters making the same mistakes, but here it’s the point — kindness without common sense is unwise, stupid, and just might land you in real trouble. So yeah, tell someone to fuck off next time they push your buttons… you might just live longer.
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