In his virtual introduction for Speak No Evil at the film’s 2022 Sundance Film Festival premiere, director Christian Tafdrup (and co-writer, with his brother Mads Tafdrup) explained that he set out to make “the most unpleasant experience for an audience ever.” With this grim exploration of social boundaries pushed to the absolute extreme, they just may have succeeded.
And even if you don’t head into Speak No Evil with Tafdrup’s warning/apology/enticement ringing in your ears—and many who watch it will not, though the morbidly curious will get to see it soon, since it got snapped up by horror streamer Shudder almost instantly—you’ll still have an inkling that you’re in for something unsettling right from the beginning. That seems almost impossible since its early scenes take place on an idyllic family vacation in Tuscany, but the first clues are carefully sprinkled in: the opening shot of a car on a dark road, the menacing music cues that come out of nowhere, the twinge of suspicion that a friendly stranger might be just a little too friendly. All this sails over the heads of Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), who’re excited when they meet Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), a friendly Dutch couple who’re also staying at the villa and have a young son around the same age as their daughter.
Actually—Bjørn, who’s lurching toward a sad-sack midlife and/or existential crisis based solely on the fact that his comfortable life is, well, boring—is far more excited about the friendship than Louise, and it’s Bjørn who pushes the matter when Patrick and Karin send them a postcard six months later, inviting them to visit for a weekend. Burian’s quiet but textured performance in particular gives Speak No Evil its emotional backbone; Bjørn is a man who feels emotionally unfulfilled despite having everything, and he’s quite obviously in awe of the charismatic, successful Patrick. “Perhaps it’s a bit too long to spend with people we barely know,” Louise points out, but before anyone can say “What’s the worst that can happen?” (and someone does, because Speak No Evil makes a point of gleefully leaning into horror tropes), it’s decided the family will make the trip.
The tension’s already building by the time the Danes arrive, but—other than the aforementioned music cues—it’s subtle, built through passive aggression and then, once Patrick and Karin re-enter the picture, some superbly deployed displays of micro-aggression. Just one example: on their Italian vacation, Louise had a discussion with the couple about being a vegetarian, which makes it more than a little awkward when Patrick announces he’s cooked a roast for their welcome dinner—and insists Louise try the first piece, which she does, because she’s too gracious to refuse.
Being too nice and/or wimpy to speak up, something not-so-subtly hinted at by the film’s title (although there’s another, more literal meaning to that which we won’t spoil here) becomes Speak No Evil’s refrain, as Bjørn and particularly Louise begin to realize their hosts aren’t the breezy, affable, like-minded folks they thought they were when they met on vacation. They’re actually kind of weird and rude and invasive, and they’re cruel parents to their son, who’s almost nonverbal due to a condition that caused him to be born without a tongue—or so they say.
To reveal more about the plot would be to deprive the viewer of the cringe-inducing torture Speak No Evil ladles out as the impulsive weekend getaway heads into a downward spiral. As the screws tighten onscreen, it becomes harder and harder not to shriek at Bjørn and Louise to stop being so goddamn polite as massive red flags keep popping up. Though most of the movie relies on psychological terror rather than gore, the story does build to a climax likely to be the most shocking scene in any movie this year, and we say that fully realizing it’s still January. You’ve been warned—but you’re also encouraged to witness this artfully observed, precisely crafted, and completely nasty dive into the depths of human awfulness, if you dare.
Speak No Evil will arrive on Shudder at some point in 2022.
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