[Sundance] SPEAK NO EVIL Review - Christian Tafdrup's Psychological Horror is Unforgiving
E. L. King calls director Christian Tafdrup's third feature film a cautionary, threatening, and violent tale about the trap of politeness and societal expectations.
Co-written and directed by Christian Tafdrup, Speak No Evil is a gruesome psychological horror drama that follows a Danish family who, while on holiday in Tuscany, become fast friends with a fellow traveling family from the Netherlands. Months later, an invitation arrives, encouraging the Danish family to visit the Dutch in their countryside home. Bjorn (Morten Burian), desperate to escape the monotony of his daily life, doesn't hesitate to plan a quick getaway regardless of his wife Louise's (Sidsel Siam Koch) reservations.
Free-spirited and adventurous, the Dutch, Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), welcome the Danes for the weekend, channeling energy that rouses their visitors as the drinks flow and they start to let loose. What begins as an idyllic reunion soon takes a turn as the hosts increasingly test the limits of their houseguests. Now the Danes find themselves caught in a web of their own politeness, trying to understand whether their new friends are merely eccentric or hiding something more sinister.
"Christian Tafdrup directs a brilliantly provocative and simmering satirical work of horror, indicting the two sides as he sets up his characters for an unnerving descent into darkness." — Sundance
Tafdrup focused on different horror elements and his personal experiences to bring the film to life. Speak No Evil didn't start as a horror film; it began with situations in his life on vacations, meeting strangers, and what might happen if you accepted an invitation to meet those strangers again. Tafdrup had this to say about the film he set out to create, "We agreed to make the most unpleasant experience for an audience ever." In this pursuit, I'm confident in saying he succeeded.
The film begins on a dark and poorly lit forest road with ominous orchestral music, building tension from the onset that continues throughout the movie before the narrative devolves into a cautionary, scary, and violent tale concerning the trap of politeness. It's disturbingly sinister and alarming in its brutality. The experience nauseated me as the true horror of the family's circumstances set in.
How far would you go to be a polite guest despite your level of discomfort, irritation, and anxiety? The film forces the audience to consider what we are willing to endure to fit the societal expectation of proprietary behavior. When Bjorn and Louise are confronted with finally having to break their polite demeanor, they are gaslit by their hosts into remaining on for one more fateful day. When their idyllic getaway becomes a waking nightmare, their prior desire to be courteous prevents absconding until it's too late. Speak No Evil is shocking, unspeakably wicked, and unexpected in its realism.
Regarding the film's pacing, horror, and themes, director Christian Tafdrup stated that "My brother (Mads Tafdrup), who I wrote it with, and I thought it would be fun to have this take on a horror film where there are no weapons, there are no locked doors, there are no creepy basements, there is a car outside, they can always drive away, but they don't do that and why don't they do that? In that sense, it became subtle, psychological, and it became more human in a way. I'm not a big fan of supernatural elements in horror. The challenge was to use what we could from horror conventions and then combine it with other genres I am more familiar with, like social satire, absurdism, or psychological drama. This was an experiment to do that."
When asked about what statement he wanted to make, Tafdrup said, "In this film, I didn't just want to scare, I wanted to have a statement about human nature, about life and something right now that is going on in society—what the film is really about is, who are we as human beings? We are so focused on behaving. Are we what society dictates us to be, or are we what we really are?" Regardless of what horror films came before Speak No Evil, depicting the senseless atrocities human beings commit against each other, there is no denying its unique statement about societal expectations and the added fear it will leave you about making new friends.
Speak No Evil had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Before the festival, Shudder, AMC Networks’ premium streaming service for horror, thriller, and the supernatural acquired the rights to the film.