A lovely trip with friends descends into hellishness as our protagonists ignore increasingly crimson flags in favor of civility — it's the kind of vacation terror we last felt in Midsummer.
Co-written and directed by Christian Tafdrup, Speak No Evil is on its surface simply the story of a Danish family who becomes vacation friends with a Dutch family. Posh and polite, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are beguiled by the bravado of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and the warmth of Karin (Karina Smulders). Even their darling daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) has a new playmate in Patrick and Karin's quiet little boy Abel (Marius Damslev). When a postcard arrives at their fancy metropolitan apartment, inviting them to a weekend away in their new friends' cozy cabin deep in the Dutch countryside, it seems like a no-brainer.
“What's the worst that could happen?” Bjørn jokes, unwittingly warning the audience that this question will tempt fate. And since this is a horror movie, we know the answer will be grim, at best.
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Cultures clash over food preferences, hosting etiquette, and parenting. There's a cringe-comedy element to witnessing Bjørn and Louise swallow their concerns, ignore their instincts, and make excuses for their new friends' increasingly worrisome behavior. We’ve all been there. Unspoken between them is the desire to be good guests. And all the things they do not say become their path to a truly gruesome final act. The final exchange of dialogue in this movie will haunt you just it's haunted me since I first watched Speak No Evil during Sundance 2022.
What are you willing to surrender to maintain the guise of civility? What microaggressions will you let slide? Which of your boundaries will you allow others to bend or break? How far will you go to make someone else comfortable at your expense? The dangers of compliance are at the chilling core of Speak No Evil. Its slippery slope pushes transgressions from rude to ruthless.
The script by Christian and Mads Tafdrup is wickedly sophisticated with a slow-burn pace; the audience is lured through the dreamy haze of the couples' meet-cute on a Tuscany vacation. There, Bjørn sees in Patrick the kind of man he might be — bold, unapologetic, with a raw machismo. As he returns home, the world around him is made of muted colors. The soundscape of his ennui is a score that screams where he cannot. A blast of horns, strings, and percussion instruments play over mundane domestic scenes, like doing chores or having dinner with familiar friends. The roaring instrumentals from Sune Kølster are a call to the wild unknown of the Netherlands, but also a warning.
In a sly move, Tafdrup doesn't employ music at all in the movie's most harrowing sequences. An escape attempt is made with just the hushed sounds of a hasty retreat as its sonic backdrop: the tread of feet, the click of a car door. This quiet urges your ears to prick up, to listen for the sounds of something alarming. Like the guests, we are on high alert. And yet, it won't matter. They’ve bit their tongues so long that there is no escape. There’s no words that can save them. When a final question is voiced, it will serve only to condemn them.
The violence, long promised, arrives frank and brutal. The music that called to them is gone. Even the realistic human sounds of scuffling and pain will fade, leaving us with a silent image, a postcard of a nightmarish vacation: “Wish we weren’t here.”
Despite the ominous score, the film’s first act plays like a devilishly dark comedy. The faux pas might spark a crooked smile or even an awkward guffaw. But as the screw is turned, the tension rises. And like our hapless tourists, we are sucked into the terror and its terrible thrill. In the end, Speak No Evil is a dark journey well worth the cost of admission.
Speak No Evil is now in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Shudder.