I don’t know who needs to be told this, but if strangers that you met on vacation offer for you to come spend the weekend at their isolated home, don’t…
…I’m sure—at least I hope—that that’s common sense for most of you. Unfortunately for poor, stupid, going through a mid-life crisis Bjorn (Morten Burian) in Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, which just had its world premiere at Sundance, he never got that lesson. Until now.
Written by Tafdrup and Mads Tafdrup, Speak No Evil follows the aforementioned Bjorn, his wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), who meet another family while on holiday. They instantly hit it off with Patrick (Fedja van Huet), his wife Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son, Abel (Marius Damslev). So Bjorn, despite Louise’s reservations, is thrilled when they receive a postcard from Patrick months later asking the whole family to come visit. Louise is right to think oh hell no, because once they get there, Patrick and Karin are intent on making every situation as awkward as possible. What starts as small affronts becomes pure terror as boundaries are pushed and everyone discovers who each other really is.
In an introduction from Christian Tafdrup, the director revealed to the audience that with Speak No Evil, he and Mads set out to “make the most unpleasant experience ever”. Well, congrats to them both, because Speak No Evil is indeed, one of the most unpleasant film experiences you’ll see all year.
Speak No Evil is a masochist’s dream come true. Tafdrup takes the word “comfortable”, rips it out of the dictionary, burns it and throws the ashes out to sea. Speak No Evil is suffocating. Once our protagonists arrive at Patrick and Karin’s country home, nothing feels right. Agnes is given what might as well be a dog bed to sleep on in Abel’s room. Red flag. Patrick tries to feed Louise meat, despite knowing she’s a vegetarian. Another red flag. Oh, and Abel doesn’t have a freaking tongue, which his parents blame on some hand-wavy disease. Screaming red flag! Dark humor cackles underneath the surface of Speak No Evil. It’s all so ridiculous that the extreme awkwardness forces you to laugh. Every second is a test of your limits that pops your protective bubble and puts its grubby hands all over you. You can’t not laugh, if only to get the movie to stop poking and prodding you for a second.
There to vent for us over how fucked up the situation is is Louise, the voice of reason in a deeply relatable performance from Koch. While her coward of a husband keeps saying “it’s okay” or even encouraging her to eat the meat like Patrick asks, Louise boils on the inside, because it most certainly is not fine. She is all of us in whatever awkward situations we’ve been in, a feeling which Speak No Evil brings roaring back. The rest of the cast is so perfectly “okay” or ignorant over the awkwardness of it all, that it makes Louise and the audience want to scream. Speak No Evil is a powder-keg of tension ready to explode at any minute.
And when it does, woof. You’re not ready.
Tafdrup masterfully weaves the suspense all throughout this tapestry of awkward terror. Through long shots that seem like they’ll never end and a blaring score from Sune Kolster that sounds like the trumpets of Hell, Speak No Evil is soaked in a strange, sinister atmosphere that never lets up. It gives no false perceptions of what the audience is in for. Tafdrup’s film is a relentlessly grim experience. It’ll have you squirming like a worm on a hook, just begging for that fish to swim up from the depths and end your misery.
It’s also an incredibly frustrating experience, because these characters consistently fail to do the smart thing.
Tafdrup confesses that he isn’t a horror fan, and that plays out like a double-edged sword in Speak No Evil. Not having years of tropes shoved down his throat allows the filmmaker to toy with the elements of horror in unique ways that we don’t always see. I swear, Tafdrup could make ordering at the McDonald’s drive-thru scary. But it also means he doesn’t necessarily know which tropes to avoid, and between characters that fail to do the obvious again and again when things get a little too weird, watching Speak No Evil can be maddening. The 180 spin that some of these characters go through simply to fit the narrative is mind-boggling. There’s no rhyme or reason to much of any of it, ultimately coming off as more shock for shock’s sake, which is effective but more of a cheap date move. Speak No Evil plays against tropes while also diving headfirst into some of those that are most obnoxious. The result is a heavily mixed bag that will absolutely divide audiences.
Speak No Evil is the kind of movie that leaves you unsure if you should scream, laugh, cry, rage, or all of the above. It’s unpleasant. Upsetting. And unforgiving. This film spares no one. It doesn’t just cross the line. It leaps so far over it, you can’t even see the line anymore. The line does not exist. On a technical level, Speak No Evil is incredibly well-crafted. It nails exactly the sort of cringe experience it aims to deliver. But that experience isn’t for everyone. This movie is not for the faint of heart, and while I enjoyed it for what it is, it’s certainly not an experience I want to have again any time soon.
See Speak No Evil at your own peril.
By Matt Konopka