Movies: Speak No Evil (2022)

Since I mentioned on a recent video that I’d been trying to watch some of the newer films that have recently been added on Shudder, I was happy to get a recommendation along those lines from a listener, who told me I should watch the 2022 film Speak No Evil, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance. I will note that although this is a Danish production, most of the movie is in English, with a smattering of Danish and Dutch.

While I will say that I really, really liked this movie, it’s definitely not for all tastes. It’s something of a slow burn, not really going full-on horror until the third act, and I saw that some reviewers were frustrated by the actions (or inactions, as the case may be) of some of the characters, but I found Speak No Evil a sickeningly anxiety-inducing story, one that made me actually question how I would react if put into the same situation as our protagonists; at what point would I say, “enough,” and at what point would you?

The movie essentially gaslights its audience, and makes us squirm as we witness boundaries being insidiously crossed, but not necessarily in a way that would cause the average person to flee in terror, at least initially. In other words, this movie is not a fun watch at all, and goes to some pretty bleak places at the end, so if you’re not really in the mood to watch something rather depressing if not outright soul-killing, then maybe give this one a pass.

Directed by Christian Tafdrup (and co-written by him and his brother Mads), the film’s most obvious comparison is to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but more generally, it’s just a very good entry into that psychological horror subgenre that explores the lengths that people will go to in order to be polite and avoid causing conflict or embarrassment, and how much we’re willing to put up with to accommodate others. In that way, the film almost plays like an extremely dark cringe comedy at times, but the steadily escalating tension throughout effectively staves off any laughter other than the awkward, uneasy kind.

At the beginning of the story, we meet a Danish family—dad Bjørn, mom Louise, and daughter Agnes—who are vacationing in Tuscany. Not long into their holiday, they meet a friendly Dutch family, comprised of Patrick, Karin, and their very shy young son Abel, who doesn’t speak all that much; Patrick explains later that the boy was born without a tongue.

It’s clear from the way the families, and specifically the men, interact—and this is beautifully and subtly portrayed through seemingly trivial dialogue, body language, and significant glances—that Bjørn sees in Patrick the kind of man that he’d like to be. Bjørn, you see, is something of a passive fellow, who loves his wife and family, but laments the lack of passion and excitement in his life. He’s always followed the rules, always done what was expected of him, and has hence come to a place in his life where he feels unfulfilled, as though he’s become “just some guy” who ended up in this humdrum existence through his own lack of assertiveness, his unwillingness to grab life by the balls.

Patrick, by contrast, is vibrantly masculine, outgoing and gregarious in a way that Bjørn obviously admires and aspires to. You can see Bjørn visibly stand taller after Patrick calls him “heroic” for going back to retrieve his daughter’s lost stuffed rabbit (an event which foreshadows something much more sinister later on), and we immediately understand that Patrick is buttering Bjørn up for an unknown purpose.

The families have a pleasant time in each others’ company, then go back to their respective countries. Some time later, though, Bjørn and Louise get a postcard from the Dutch couple, inviting them to spend the weekend with them at their house in the remote countryside of the southern Netherlands. Louise is understandably reluctant, as Patrick and Karin are practically strangers, but it’s evident that Bjørn really wants to go, and the fact that the postcard states how much little Abel wants to see Agnes again gives him all the justification he needs: wouldn’t want to disappoint the poor child, would we? So they set out on the eight-hour drive.

Everything seems mostly fine, at first. Patrick and Karin are genial hosts, and their home is pleasantly shabby and comfortable. But right from the start, lots of small, seemingly inconsequential occurrences begin to slowly sour the experience. Patrick apparently “forgot” that Louise was a vegetarian, and seems to make a point of cooking meat-heavy dishes and insistently cajoling her into tasting them. The couple set Agnes up on a tiny air mattress in their son Abel’s room without asking Bjørn or Louise if that arrangement is all right. They also seem to not have any social boundaries or propriety, flagrantly walking into the bathroom to pee when someone else is in the shower, for example.

A bit later on, Patrick and Karin invite the Danish couple out to a restaurant, but don’t tell them until they’re literally walking out the door that the kids can’t come with them and are being left with a babysitter who Bjørn and Louise have never met before. And then at the restaurant, Patrick and Karin not only make the other couple intensely uncomfortable with their shameless, drunken PDA, but they also manipulate Bjørn into paying the substantial check; Patrick also drives home drunk, weaving all over the (thankfully deserted) road and blaring the radio at top volume despite Louise’s protests.

Louise, in fact, grows tired of the Dutch couple pretty quickly, and makes it clear to Bjørn that she’d like to leave. Bjørn doesn’t really want to go, as he feels invigorated by Patrick and his unabashed machismo, but he eventually concedes. When confronted with their misdeeds, however—which seem devilishly insignificant when listed out loud—Patrick and Karin profusely apologize. They have an explanation for every single grievance that Bjørn and Louise bring up, and they even craftily flip the script, making themselves out as the victims of the Danes’ cultural misunderstandings and uptightness. Through these duplicitous machinations, they’re able to convince Bjørn and Louise to stay for the rest of the weekend, simply by exploiting their disinclination to be rude to people who have been so friendly and generous.

From there, as you might expect, things take a very dark turn, and trust me when I say that the ending of this thing is pretty damn grim. While the character of Bjørn in particular is frustrating, as there are many points in the story when he absolutely should have nutted up and put his foot down rather than going along with situations that were clearly going south, he’s also not all that unrealistic, and his passivity is actually a big part of the theme or message of the film, which is a kind of blackly satirical take on excessive politeness and how it can absolutely get you into real trouble if you don’t know when or how to stand up for yourself. From what I could gather by reading comments from Danes who had seen the film, the particular choice of making the Danish couple very bourgeois and unwilling to rock the boat, and pitting them against the stereotypically more open and convivial Dutch was absolutely deliberate, and gave the film a particular cultural resonance as well as a sort of cruel humor. I can’t really speak to that, since I’m neither Danish nor Dutch, but I am a laid-back, introverted person who also dislikes confrontation, so I could still relate to the Danes’ predicament, though I like to think I would have noped out sooner than they did. That’s the hell of it, though: do any of us really know how much we would take unless we were actually confronted with these exact circumstances?

Speak No Evil is technically more of a psychological thriller, at least for the first two acts, but as I mentioned, it does go to some disturbing places toward the end, so don’t watch this if you’re in the mood for a bloody good time, because this film will probably just make you angry and bummed out. While it does skewer the character of Bjørn in particular for his docility, and thus his direct responsibility for the horrors that unfold, it’s also indicting the Dutch characters, whose supposedly more admirable extroversion and sociability masks the utter depravity lurking beneath. I’d recommend it only to fans of restrained but bleak psychological horror; fans of more overt horror would probably find it too slow or too maddening. It’s definitely one I’m going to be thinking about for a while, though.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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