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{Sundance} Speak No Evil – First-Look Review

A painfully relatable horror, Speak No Evil gets its inspiration from a terrifying social situation: making new friends as an adult. 

This deliciously unpleasant Danish film explores the curse of fast friends. Relationships that would never work if incorporated into one’s normal routine, as all parties involved know too well. The movie advises you to shut down that little voice in your head convincing you to stay in touch with those nice people you’ve met on holiday. As director and co-screenwriter Christian Tafdrup seems to believe, albeit a tad pessimistically, nothing good can come out of it. Not if you’re older than 17, anyway.

Presented at Sundance Film Festival, Speak No Evil kicks off under the Tuscan sun. A hot Italian summer spent in a beautiful villa of a picturesque town can put even the most antisocial in a good mood. At least, that’s what happens to hyper-polite Danish family Bjørn (Morton Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) when they meet exuberant Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), his partner Karin (Karina Smulders) and their shy young boy Abel (Marius Damslev), all hailing from the Netherlands.

Prompted by the relaxed holiday atmosphere, the Danes cave to the traveling couple’s charming attempts to wine and dine together and, just like that, their fast friendship is forged. Months later, Bjørn and Louise received a quaint invitation to the Netherlands by way of a postcard. After debating whether or not they want to spend three days with Patrick and Karin, the pair reluctantly agrees it would be rude to decline and off they go. It’s only a weekend in the Dutch countryside, and a chance for their daughter and Abel to play together again. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

Speak No Evil thrives in the uneasiness of the everyday

In interviews, Tafdrup has reiterated he wanted to craft a most uncomfortable film for people to relate to. Even before getting to the horror of it all, it’s safe to say that he and his brother and co-writer Mads have definitely achieved their goal.

The power dynamics are apparent in the constant dialogue between the four characters, and their private conversations with their partners. The couples use English as a lingua franca to communicate with each other, with the actors perfectly conveying the struggle to find the right words to express a concept politely or to hit back in a banter. The unconfident delivery of their respective lines in English only adds to the uneasiness, especially when compared to how direct they sound in their mother tongues only moments afterward. On their part, their kids are mostly silent tokens the two couples use to one-up each other, tragically unaware of the crucial importance they will take on in the final part.

By his own admission, Tafdrup isn’t a “nerdy fan of horror” (whatever that means) and is more well-versed in social satire and psychological drama. Nonetheless, he managed to include horror tropes and situations in his film, crafting an unsettlingly amusing descent to hell. It’s a shame that Speak No Evil fails to deliver on its promise with a finale that hasn’t much to offer apart from its shock value.

A slow-burning horror, Speak No Evil keeps viewers entertained and vigilant in equal measure. The film is on the verge of going fully scary on several occasions. Yet, it manages to keep the tension at an all-time high. And this rollercoaster is absolutely unbearable.

Two excellent first acts and an uneven finale

The audience is aware that something wicked this way comes, and it might hit them at any minute. Much like the slightly off, patronizing couple formed by Patrick and Karin, the film takes its time to reveal its full nature, and it does so with gusto.

The first two acts are caustic and excellent at portraying not just the quietly passive-aggressive clash between the two families, but also the inner conflicts within the picture-perfect, people-pleasing Bjørn and Louise. Patrick and Karin may have been increasingly irritating from the get-go, but their ever-smiling Danish friends are truly being put to the test. 

Burian’s and Koch’s performances are brilliant at showing how, slowly but surely, their characters lose their grip. Minute after minute, the couple unveils their frustrations and primal needs in the worst possible scenarios. An anxious, unsatisfied Bjørn, particularly, is both repulsed and fascinated by Patrick’s alpha male quality. Patrick is well aware of how easily he can manipulate Bjørn, using his charisma to make his guests stay even when the whole audience is practically begging them to get the hell out.

The buildup to the big twist is well-executed, supposedly saving the best for last in anticipation of a third-act showdown. Unfortunately, the much-hyped finale feels rushed, providing very few elements for the audience to understand the characters’ motivations. Speak No Evil pushes the pedal on its plot, immaculate up to that point, to deliver a Haneke-inspired, casually cruel final act that it’s gory fun, but lacks in substance. Still, the film makes for an interesting genre-bending experiment, gifting viewers a stressful, sadistic, cringey adventure — in the best possible way.