Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are on holiday in Tuscany with their daughter (Liva Forsberg), where they meet a Dutch family of similar makeup. They share a day or two together and then part ways. Back home in Denmark, Bjorn and Louise receive a postcard from their newfound acquaintances with an invitation to come stay in the family’s home in Holland. They agree, and slowly, methodically, this second vacation becomes one of nightmares.
For the first significant stretch of Speak No Evil, everything reads exceedingly normal, almost unremarkable. Save for that foreboding score. And that quiet child. For the first 30 minutes or so, the film does not present as a horror film. But you’ve seen enough of this sort of movie to suspect something is about to go wrong. Something is evil with this family, or this kid, or this house. Sooner or later, the other foot has to drop. Right?
Then, so much time has past that you’re pretty sure your initial reaction was mistaken and this is more of a tense drama than a horror. Only when you are finally sure you understand what this movie is trying to do does the unnerving current pick up into a riptide of brutal horror genre material.
You could call Speak No Evil a horror of manners (as opposed to the comedy variety). The entire film builds, is allowed to build, to its grim conclusion because characters exercise their politest tendencies. You as the viewer may ask yourself, “why on Earth would they stick around in this clearly perturbing environment?” And the equation is exceedingly simple: the average person does their best to maintain their social graces. The characters can’t hear the ominous music underscoring their vacation. They don’t know just how ugly this could all turn out if they stay.
In this sense, the film is about the checks and balances (and lack thereof) to the evils of the world. If bad people are left unimpeded, they will walk all over good people. That’s the gist of the theme here, albeit here it is taken to its darkest possible extreme. The climax comes very rapidly and pulls us down into the worst possible outcome imaginable for this scenario. It is a sharp pulling of the rug out from under the audience, and it might be just a bit too severe a dark turn. While I occasionally enjoy grim content, the lengths this climax goes to, souring the plot to something rancid, took me out of what was otherwise an effectively disquieting film.
The tension and squirm-inducing scenarios director Christian Tafdrup is able to squeeze out of this premise is impressive. The slow build threw me for a loop in ways a horror movie rarely does. I was thrown to the point where I questioned whether what I was watching was a horror movie or a cringe comedy satire (I suppose, in a way, it is the latter until it unequivocally becomes the former). Impressed is the best word to describe my reaction to Speak No Evil, even if the bad taste left in my mouth from that ending didn’t do it for me.
Speak No Evil: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)