There’s something to be said about politeness. While the trait is traditionally lauded as a positive, being too polite, being too accommodating can translate as spineless. Christian Tafdrup‘s third feature film engages wholly with the concept of the facades we put up for people and for ourselves. What starts as a somewhat odd but not unwelcome weekend trip takes a turn for the deeply uncomfortable and sinister.
Speak No Evil opens in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. It’s summer and Danish Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are vacationing with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) at a villa. They meet the Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), who are there with their son Abel (Marius Damslev). Immediately, Bjorn is drawn to Patrick’s boisterous and bold personality, and while the film never explores completely, there is definitely some homoerotic subtext; the camera often lingers on Bjorn’s face as he watches Patrick with an open smile.
When the vacation is over, the Danes return to their home in the city and the Dutch go back to their home in the countryside. After some time, the Danes get a postcard in the mail inviting them to Holland for a weekend. Bjorn is intrigued and is eager to accept. When a friend tells him that it’s a mere 8-hour drive, the family goes, although Louise agrees only out of politeness.
While Speak No Evil is satirical, and horror often pushes the boundaries of what is realistic, the film takes us to a territory that is impossible and asks us to accept it. Much like the way Patrick and Karin push Bjorn and Louise beyond what they’re comfortable with, we are pushed to further heights of discomfort watching it happen.
The first two-thirds of Speak No Evil is entirely effective. I wanted to shake Patrick and tell him to get over his crush on Bjorn and see the red flags, I wanted to shake Louise and tell her to trust her instincts and get her and her daughter out of there. My anxiety was up, my heart was pounding, I was annoyed but not at the film. Tafdrup’s message is totally clear, and van Huêt is a perfect messenger as the obtrusive Patrick.
While Karin is certainly conniving, it is Patrick who seduces and abuses the family throughout their stay. Louise is eager to leave, having never wanted to come in the first place, but Bjorn is fascinated by the Dutch family’s life. Indeed, there is a part of both of these city dwellers that sees a serenity and fantasy in living out in the countryside away from the hustle and bustle of life.
Tafdrup should be praised for his ability to build tension and agony so artfully, especially when he’s bouncing between a terrifying night drive to an affable family dinner without skipping a beat. But he’s not breaking any ground with his claims. Bjorn is unhappy in his monotonous, middle-class life. He laments the use of technology and our reliance on it. He loves his daughter but likely also resents her for her attachment to them (she sleeps in bed between the couple).
Bored, repressed middle-class man who has been metaphorically castrated from his authentic caveman roots, who longs to let out a bestial scream into the wind, is nothing new. But, choosing to emphasize it as the reason why he’s so attached to Patrick is genuinely interesting. Burian’s Bjorn rarely shows the same type of apprehension on his face as Koch’s Louise. Before the final stretch of the movie, the possibilities feel endless for how these two could conclude their weekend. Will Louise finally be pushed too far and abandon Bjorn for the safety of her daughter? Will their marriage crumble after witnessing the closeness and intimacy of Patrick and Karin?
Where Speak No Evil fails is when it reaches that climax, instead of tunneling in on Bjorn’s impotence or the cracks in the couple’s marriage, it turns predictable and extremely violent. There have been breadcrumbs leading us up to this point, so it’s not exactly shocking. When Karin and Patrick finally show their teeth the only people who are surprised are Bjorn and Louise. The final end drags where it should be suspenseful, but we already know, by that point, what will happen. We’ve seen Chekov’s gun, now my eye is on the clock, waiting to leave this anxiety-ridden world.
The film does everything right in eliciting a strong reaction from the audience, it provokes us. But by the time the credits roll, there’s nothing to feel but defeated and even a little cheated. Perhaps it was a desire for the gore or for the terror to come to a head, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat and Speak No Evil reaching for the lowest hanging fruit that ruins an exciting build-up. Like Bjorn, Tafdrup defangs his feature in the final act, choosing to forego the road less traveled, completely breaking up the tension of an otherwise uncomfortable, tension-filled story.
Speak No Evil premiered at Sundance this week and is scheduled to be released on Shudder in late 2022.