Christian Tardrup’s class satire/horror Speak No Evil is bleak and gruesome, but ultimately empty
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival)
One thing they don’t tell you about adulthood is how hard it is to make new friends. Long gone are the days when you could meet your next best friend after they hit you over the head with a lunchbox, or based solely on a shared love for Scooby-Doo. The older you get, the harder it is to break the ice with people, to bridge differences and bond past the most superficial niceties. We’re simply too pressed for time, too tired, and too insecure.
Christian Tardrup’s Speak No Evil suggests that maybe it’s a good idea to not try to make new friends, because it might result in your death. Filling in the “bleak and unpleasant horror” space on the film festival bingo card, it’s stylish and boldly cynical, but with a hollow core. It wants to be both social satire, and a Funny Games-style “because you were home” thriller, and doesn’t quite come together.
Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are a Danish couple on vacation in Tuscany with their young daughter, Agnes. They meet and hit it off with a Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), whose mute son, Abel, is about Agnes’ age. Well, “hit it off” might be a bit generous–Louise is a bit distant (while still polite). Bjorn, on the other hand, is taken with them immediately, all but beaming at the praise that Patrick lays on thick.
The couples return to their respective homes, but shortly thereafter Bjorn and Louise receive an invitation from Patrick and Karin to visit them at their country home in the Netherlands. Though initially reluctant, they agree to make the trip. “What’s the worst that can happen?” another friend asks them, which is probably the worst question you can ask in a horror movie.
Bjorn and Louise barely set foot in Patrick and Karin’s house before it becomes apparent that something is amiss. For one thing, although in their invitation they insist that young Abel misses Agnes, when they arrive he barely acknowledges her. Gone is the praise Patrick lavished on Bjorn and Louise, in favor of microaggressions, like repeatedly ignoring the fact that Louise is a vegetarian, refusing to turn down the music in his car, and glibly admitting to lying about what he does for a living, all while smiling and making the other couple feel embarrassed about their own discomfort.
The environment becomes stifling enough to force Bjorn and Louise to leave, albeit before dawn and as quietly as possible. They’re only a few miles away, however, before Agnes discovers that she’s left her beloved stuffed bunny behind, forcing them to turn around and go back to the house. When Patrick and Karin demand an explanation for why they wanted to leave, they deftly turn Bjorn and Louise’s complaints around so that they seem petty and judgmental, shaming them into staying. This, unsurprisingly, leads to disastrous consequences, and the suggestion that if new friends send you an invitation to stay at their home hours away from yours, you throw that shit right in the trash.
Though much of Speak No Evil doesn’t really work, the moment where Bjorn decides to return to Patrick and Karin’s house, when things pivot from merely unsettling to dangerous, is perhaps the closest the movie gets to doing something interesting. It seems as if he goes back to get Agnes’ doll, but it may also be because he never really wanted to leave in the first place, and uses it as an opportunity to defy Louise, who up to that point seems to be wearing the pants in their marriage. It’s a subtle act of rebellion, but one for which not just he, but his entire family is punished.
The true horror of Speak No Evil is found in the strange obligation to people we, really, barely know, accepting the weird things and odd behavior we encounter because to question or challenge it would be rude. They’re guests in Patrick and Karin’s home, of course Louise will simply smile and eat the meat she’s already told Patrick twice she doesn’t eat, or shrug off his coming into the bathroom and brushing his teeth while she’s showering. It’s chilling to ponder, but at the same time it doesn’t really explain why Bjorn and Louise still stay even after Patrick berates and throws a cup at little Abel, or when a nude Karin lets Agnes sleep in her bed. It’s not as if the tires have been slashed on their car, only their insistence on remaining polite that keeps them there. Even when things fully go over the edge, Bjorn passively accepts it, as if he saw this coming all along.
The true horror…is found in the strange obligation to people we, really, barely know.
The game Bjorn and Karin are playing is gruesome, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (nor is it clear who the third person who shows up out of nowhere to help them is). It also doesn’t seem like something they could get away with that many times, but a third act reveal suggests that they have. Are they punishing Bjorn and Louise for their phony decorum, or Louise’s bourgeois hypocrisy? Or is it simply a question of “because you let us”? Whatever case, the inevitably bleak ending leaves the viewer shaken, but not particularly moved either way.
Much like last year’s festival circuit favorite Feast, much of the actual, visceral horror in Speak No Evil is backloaded in the last fifteen minutes. And make no mistake, if that’s what you’re watching this for, it delivers. The performances are also across the board solid, and its universal themes of class satire and forced courtesy make it ripe for an American remake (Morten Burian bears a resemblance to James McAvoy, so there, casting directors, I’ve done part of your job for you). It’s a well-crafted film, creating a sense of tension from the opening frame to the last, aided in no small part by a comically over the top score, employed even in scenes where nothing is happening, like Bjorn and Louise washing dishes
Nonetheless, its cynicism and nihilism is reminiscent of the torture porn genre of the 00s, where the audience is left feeling shocked and a little ill, but puzzled as to what it’s all supposed to mean. The randomness of it all is what’s supposed to be scary, but it’s really the underlying pointlessness of it that’s more troubling.