Speak No Evil is now streaming on Shudder.
“There are only two things I can’t stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch.” — Nigel Powers
Why start this review of Christian Tafdrup’s masochistically cruel Speak No Evil with a quote from Austin Powers in Goldmember? Well, maybe Nigel knew something we didn’t about the bloody Dutch. Speak No Evil is essentially last summer’s Hulu comedy Vacation Friends, except as an iconically twisted horror tale without sunshiny conclusions. It’s in a class of relentless bad-vibes filmmaking alongside Green Room, 2012’s Maniac remake, and other char-broiled tales of bleak inhumanity. Don’t think this is Barbarian, where you can hoot and holler alongside pure mean-spirited horror entertainment — this is more Hounds of Love or Coming Home in the Dark, where there’s no softening salvation to alleviate stomach-churning villainy.
Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are your typical Danish family enjoying an exotic Tuscan vacation. Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and speech-impaired son Abel (Marius Damslev) are their newfound Dutch travel buddies. After their Italian getaway ends, Patrick invites Bjørn’s clan to his humble wooded residence for another escape from Danish normalcy. Should they stay in their mundane bubble or flee at Patrick’s request? That’s a decision that will haunt our memories.
Speak No Evil draws its terror from basic societal themes of mistrust, midlife anxiousness, and blind faith in the nobility of others. Bjørn is smitten by Patrick’s warm open-mindedness upon their Tuscany introductions because we put so much stock in first impressions. Christian and brother Mads Tafdrup pepper their script with microaggressions and apologetic pleasantries that are so commonly overlooked, only to ensure the film’s climax tears our nerves to shreds. There’s a balancing act that Christian wrestles throughout Speak No Evil as idyllic Dutch windmill fields look so picturesque, and enrapture a stuffier Bjørn seeking adventure — the man who’s willing to ignore people’s worst qualities and believe in the happiness he deserves, whether fabricated or genuine.
It’s a tightrope walk as Bjørn’s loved ones inhabit Patrick’s isolated and homely luxury-sized cabin because we enter Speak No Evil understanding horrors await. Scrumptious feasts of juicy wild boar and laughs shared over bottles of wine can’t last. Cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen goes above and beyond when capturing Dutch countrysides as beautiful postcard-worthy landscapes to visually brighten Patrick’s homeland and thus his personality. We acknowledge smiling faces, delicious foods, and healthy pours — but composer Sune Kølster scratches stringed instruments to distort domestic comforts. Kølster’s score is the counterbalance that tickles tension and summons suspense, which is crucial because so much of Speak No Evil is facades and niceties while we anticipate the inevitable implosion.
By conceptual default, Speak No Evil becomes a character piece riding on its ensemble. Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes ditch their Danish comfort zones for Patrick, Karin, and Abel’s unfounded generosity. As the proverbial wheels come off, Patrick and Karin let us know their discomfort is appropriate. Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch grapple with the awkward position of defying their host’s supposed best intentions — Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders do a magnificent job masking what hides buried underneath abundant hospitality. It’s never overwhelmingly dangerous until resistance becomes futile, pitting personal weakness against alpha predator instincts. The game is always afoot, and Tafdrup’s management of performance temperaments is an achievement in guilt, sabotage, and non-confrontational shortcomings.
Then, there’s that pointy pitchfork of an ending. What’s there to say beyond insurmountable despicableness that happens just because it can? Speak No Evil teases something sinister when Abel’s seen early with a shortened tongue, but nothing can prepare audiences for the obscene scorched-earth finale. Once Bjørn recognizes the red flags he’s forgiven, there’s a franticness without recovery. Something sensationally unthinkable crawls from beneath heaps of performative goodwill that exposes humanity’s slickest demons, pounding like a metal spike driven into your heart with mighty blacksmith’s swings.