Speak No Evil has earned quite the reputation for itself on the festival circuit. A Rolling Stone critic wildly suggested that the movie is so disturbing that the final 20 minutes would have even the great Michael Haneke clutching his pearls. Seasoned horror fans will balk at the idea that the director of Funny Games could find something more stomach-churning than his own work. Indeed, those who are vaguely familiar with Haneke’s movies, Lars Von Trier, French extremism such as Martyrs or even The Sadness, which dropped on Shudder earlier this year with a big “extreme horror” warning slapped on it, will be left wondering what’s so shocking about Speak No Evil. It’s not that the final moments aren’t disturbing, but rather that they don’t bear up to much scrutiny once the initial shock wears off — unlike Funny Games, Martyrs or The Sadness, from which many viewers never recover.
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For much of its run-time, Speak No Evil — directed by Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup and co-written with his brother, Mads Tafdrup — plays like a kind of horror-comedy of manners. Set mostly during an excruciating long weekend at a family home in Holland — which, crucially, isn’t even that isolated — the movie follows parents Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg). The Danes have been invited to spend some time with holiday friends Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders) and their own curiously mute boy Abel (Marius Damslev) at their home, an invitation they feel compelled to accept out of politeness — a very bad idea.
Speak No Evil is a horror movie before anything violent happens, simply because the situation is so uncomfortable and awkward. Karin and Patrick make it clear early on how needlessly combative they are. The couple has no boundaries either, from bringing Bjørn and Louise to a horrible restaurant to the agonizing moment Patrick brushes his teeth while Louise is taking a shower. The camera clings to the woman’s face as a shadow ominously falls over her, the gross, suddenly oppressive noises of an otherwise routine bedtime activity encroaching upon her personal space in the most bizarre way. And yet when Louise, who’s been uneasy the whole time, expresses her concerns to her husband, it seems like she’s overreacting. Bjørn is eager to try something new — when they’re in Italy, where the couple first meets Patrick and Karin, he appears listless and even grumpy — so he’s not willing to give up on them until it’s really obvious they’re nuts.
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Moreover, after Bjørn and Louise flee in the middle of the night and are forced to return to the house, their hosts make them out to be the crazy ones, twisting the situation to imply they’re being uptight and judgemental. It’s obvious what’s really going on in Speak No Evil, of course, not least because Bjørn once caught Patrick eyeballing him from a courtyard back in Italy, but also because he also clearly feels some kind of kinship with this man who brags about not believing in working for a living and who happily drinks beer in his at-home pool all day long. Patrick is charming, but his cunning is evident in virtually every interaction he has with the couple, especially when he’s needling Louise for being a vegetarian or openly berating his son for being a bad dancer. The Dutch isn’t translated, which puts viewers in Bjørn and Louise’s shoes, as though they’re constantly on the back foot, wondering what they’re missing in the other family’s interactions.
Sune Kølster’s ominous, brooding and string-heavy score does most of the work setting up Speak No Evil’s atmosphere. It’s a little overpowering at times, much like the hosts themselves, which is a neat touch. However, Kølster and indeed the Tafdrups appear to be building to a crescendo that doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The movie doesn’t get violent for a very long time, and when it does, the impact hits like a smack in the face (quite literally). But the journey is arguably better, and more memorable, than the destination since not only are Speak No Evil’s first two acts the best argument for not making holiday friends perhaps ever committed to celluloid, but they also make an intriguing yet somewhat facile case for why our collective politeness in increasingly untenable situations really does us no good in the long term. The ending isn’t as shocking as the filmmakers clearly intended it to be, not to mention that it makes little to no sense when considered for even a moment too long. There are also plenty of times when viewers will be screaming at Bjørn and Louise to just get in their car and drive away, since they almost manage it more than once. Besides, haven’t we got past the point of watching outwardly competent horror protagonists make mind-numbingly dumb decisions over and over again?
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Speak No Evil is a horror-comedy of manners, and the performances are solid throughout, particularly from the children, but the movie’s cynical, meaningless and utterly contrived conclusion feels like a cheat after everything that’s come before.
Speak No Evil releases September 15 on Shudder.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.