Danish couple Bjørn and Louise travel on vacation with their daughter Agnes to Tuscany. There they meet a Dutch family – Patrick, Karin, and son Abel – and immediately hit it off. Once back at home, they receive an invitation by mail to visit Patrick and Karin in their home in the Netherlands. This time around their friendship does not track so smoothly, and as their hosts’ behaviour grows ever-unsettling Bjørn and Louise’s politeness is stretched to its limit.
In its opening scenes, Speak No Evil could easily go one of two ways. This story of an objectionable couple straining the patience of their well-mannered guests could easily be a typically European satirical comedy, and indeed there are more than a few awkwardly funny moments to be found. Instead it heads down the opposite path: Speak No Evil rapidly becomes claustrophobic, uncomfortable, bleak, and downright menacing. The question is not whether the narrative will twist from awkward interactions to psychological horror, but when the twist will occur. This is a slow-building, relentlessly threatening piece of horror. Anyone familiar with the likes of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988), Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-Di Koko-Da (2019), or Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997 and 2007) will be well familiar with the sort of film to expect. Audiences less au fait with the style or the tone should be well aware that Speak No Evil is not for the faint-hearted, and is in parts remarkably confronting. Would the film be more effective without knowing in what direction it is headed? Very probably, but with apologies this is the sort of entertainment one should make an educated choice to watch.
The film is directed by Danish actor and filmmaker Christian Tafdrup, and co-written with his brother Mads. It is, all things considered, a fairly savage satire of genteel politeness. Bjørn and Louise, played wonderfully by Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch, are so reluctant to challenge their hosts no matter what the provocation. They debate Patrick and Karin’s odd behaviour in private, and even make several resolutions to cut their holiday short or even leave in the middle of the night, but at every challenge or obstacle their doggedly persistent politeness wins out. It is like the proverbial boiling of the frog – once the behaviour becomes intolerable, the guests have already tolerated so much it becomes difficult to take a stand.
Karina Smulders makes for a worryingly happy and outgoing Karin, but it is Fedja van Huêt who really steals the film as Patrick. He brings a necessary charisma to a difficult role: Patrick in particular behaves in abominable ways, and it is because of Van Huêt’s charming portrayal that he manages to string both his guests and the audiences along for as long as he does.
Technically the film is excellent, and is well shot by cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen. The striking musical score is by Sune “Køter” Kølster, and impressively ratchets up the tension and dread in the most ordinary of scenes. This is a superb thriller, and is a must-see for all enthusiasts of provocative cinema.
Speak No Evil is streaming on Paramount+ in Australia and Shudder in the UK. It is available now on DVD in Australia, and is coming soon in the USA.