"Speak No Evil" a disturbing Danish nightmare that kills all social niceties and hope

Speak No Evil (2022)

If either version of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” was too funny or “Force Majeure” wasn’t bleak enough, shake hands with “Speak No Evil.” This Danish horror film doesn’t have an unstoppable boogeyman or anything supernatural about it when the human evils of the real world are frightening enough. What begins as a dark comedy of manners, the film, as written and directed by Christian Tafdrup (and co-written by the director’s brother, Mads Tafdrup), ultimately aims to disturb us on a relatable level: social mores and the darkest corners of human nature. While this could be entirely read as a soot-black social satire, “Speak No Evil” slowly changes form into an unsparing chiller that curb-stomps social niceties and any remaining shred of hope.

While on holiday in Tuscany, Danish family Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) meet their Dutch matches: charismatic doctor Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), wife Karin (Karina Smulders), and mute son Abel (Marius Damslev). The families hit it off and then, a few months after their vacation, the family accepts an invitation to visit their new friends in Holland. It’s only an eight-hour trip by car to their home in the woods, while Louise initially reasons that “it’s perhaps a bit too long to spend with some people we barely know.” What’s the worst that could happen besides having too many glasses of wine? Well, Louise should have trusted her gut. Is this even the same family they met on their summer vacation? 

The cinematic equivalent of a torture device, “Speak No Evil” is an unsettling cautionary tale about people making the mistake of seeing the good in strangers and keeping civility in awkward social situations. With a score of operatic portent, there’s a level of unease from the very beginning. Something really bad is bound to happen, but director Christian Tafdrup still deceptively strings us along with a false sense of security. He skillfully builds the tension with control, letting it simmer and teasing what Patrick and Karin have in store for their new friends. None of the Dutch couple’s behavior feels jarringly sudden; it’s little things, but Bjørn and Louise don’t want to rock the boat. Then the proverbial knife slowly twists.

Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch are put through the wringer as Bjørn and Louise—she is made to be the more assertive of the two—and real-life couple Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders are charming and hospitable as Patrick and Karin until they’re not. Things do start off friendly enough as both families pick up where they left off from their vacation, but it begins feeling like an endurance test of politeness and confrontation avoidance for Bjørn and Louise. When Patrick makes wild boar for dinner and insists she has a taste, Louise has to reiterate that she’s a vegetarian. Louise is made uncomfortable when Patrick walks into the bathroom while she’s showering. When the hosts want to take their guests out for dinner, Louise is surprised when Karin was never planning on bringing the kids and has set up a babysitter for them instead. Just wait until the check comes. Much more volatility and unpleasantness ensue as if a switch was flipped. When Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes have a chance to leave, they don’t take it. They’re like frogs slowly being boiled alive: it’s already too late.

We don't criticize comedies for being too funny, right? In horror movies, an uncompromising, unshakably downbeat ending is always welcome (and usually preferred), but after "Martyrs" and "The Mist," what does going "too far" look like? The crescendo this film reaches almost seems to go too far to shock and without much of a point besides nihilism. Not everything is spelled out (although there is a motivational line that chillingly rivals “Because you were home” from “The Strangers”), and that will be frustrating, horrifying, or both to viewers. Before that off-puttingly grim and cruel sucker punch, it’s still effective in the discomfort it seeks. The main takeaway is one of feel-bad devastation, and you can feel the impact in your bones. A brutal, uncomfortable, and maddening terror, "Speak No Evil" is simultaneously recommended and difficult to recommend without any reservations for the same reasons. It leaves one shaken, dejected, and drained of all hope, but it could most certainly do its job: make you introverted at best and make you anthropophobic at worst. 

Grade: B

IFC Midnight is releasing “Speak No Evil” (98 min.) in theaters on September 9, 2022 and on Shudder on September 15, 2022.