A short time ago, I was coming home from dinner with a friend when a young man with a pronounced limp walked towards us, his little dog in tow. Just as he drew close, he dropped his phone on the sidewalk. With my natural instincts kicking in, I picked up his phone, returned it and asked if he was okay. He muttered something about injuring his leg recently, thanked us, and we all continued on our way. It wasn’t until we returned to my car that my friend realized his bag of possessions, which he usually hanged from the back handles of his wheelchair, was no longer there. Retracing our steps, I found the stolen and now completely empty bag right by the spot we had encountered Mr. Dogwalker. Clearly he had a partner in crime who would swoop up quietly from behind while I was helping out the first guy. With my kindness used against me, I have since discovered my vulnerabilities, vowing to increase my awareness when confronted with such situations again. I’m not saying I’ll never again help, for example, an elderly person cross the street, but I’m not NOT saying that either!
I bring all of this up because the new film by Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup, Speak No Evil, delves into the nuances of niceties and our ability to avoid seeming rude even when faced with increasingly dire situations. This slow-burning, expertly calibrated story caused me to reflect on my own blindspots. Co-written with his brother, Mads Tafdrup, the film begins with a somewhat tightly-wound Danish couple, Bjørn and Louise (Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch) on a Tuscan vacation with their sweet daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). There they meet a more gregarious Dutch couple, Patrick and Karin (Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders) with their sullen, withdrawn son Abel (Marius Damslev). Abel, they explain, has a condition in which he was born without a fully developed tongue, which affects his speaking abilities. The families become fast friends, and once home again, Bjørn and Louise receive an invitation from their “vacation friends” to come to rural Holland for a long weekend. While Louise thinks it’s a little odd, since they barely know them, Bjørn seems a little more excited by the adventurousness of the idea, so off they go. “What’s the worst that could happen?” a friend of theirs asks.
Not the subtlest of questions when feelings of dread creep into the first frames of this movie. Right off the bat, the score by Sune Kølster blares melodramatically like some film noir from the 1950s playing over what would normally be benign images. Upon arrival, things seem increasingly off, but in quiet ways which make you question whether or not our guests are perhaps a little too uptight. What could seem like honest misunderstandings, such as Patrick forgetting Louise was a vegetarian, or noticing our hosts utilizing aggressive parenting skills, force you to wonder if we’re looking at cultural differences or maybe something more insidious. Add a subtle hint of homoeroticism between Bjørn and Patrick, and you are left wondering which direction each scene is headed, knowing full well it’s not going to be pleasant.
Without spoiling anything further, Speak No Evil examines how human graciousness can often leave one vulnerable to exploitation. As such, it shares its DNA with such films as George Sluizer’s The Vanishing, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers and especially Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Direct visual and aural references abound, while continually challenging the audience to wonder where they would draw the line if they found themselves in increasingly uncomfortable situations, however harmless they may seem. Like its predecessors, the film will not appeal to everyone as it pushes itself further and further into darker territory.
There is, however, no denying the craft on display. Tafdrup not only has a gift for unsettling images, complicated dynamics, and slowly turning screws on his story, but he also has guided his quartet of lead actors to deliver incredible performances. Burian’s Bjørn does most of the heavy lifting as we watch his initial excitement wearing away. It’s a step-by-step masterclass in how to expose layer upon layer of a character. Koch gives Louise a brittle energy, fully justifying her ever increasing discomfort and anger. While Smulders has a quieter role, she perfectly finds just the right bone-chilling notes to prevent her from getting upstaged while van Huêt’s showiness and bluster make for an unforgettable portrayal, especially in the film’s many set pieces.
At times the film loses some credibility, especially during its later stages, but Tafdrup stays so focused on his characters with the subjugation and microaggressions always taking center stage, one carefully rendered reaction at a time. It may be the feel terrible movie of 2022, but as a cautionary tale, one cannot deny the valuable lessons learned and the blazing talent from both sides of the camera. Not only will I never forget this film, I will never, as my parents taught me, take candy from strangers.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Speak No Evil opens in limited US release on September 9th and begins streaming on Shudder September 15th. See it with someone you know…very, very well.