Speak No Evil, the first horror film from Danish actor-director Christian Tafdrup, is almost literally painful to watch. From its opening moments, when a Danish family is vacationing in Italy, an ominous score echoes over images of the beautiful countryside, immediately instilling a sense of dread.
That fear only grows when the Danes – father Bjørn (Morten Burian), mother Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) – meet a Dutch family that strikes a strange balance between friendship and confrontation. Especially dad Patrick (Fedja van Huêt, who is genuinely amazing throughout the film) who makes false glowing comments about vegetarianism being good for the environment and the courage to search a foreign city for his favorite stuffed animal. son.
However, the two families seem to have a good time together on their vacation, and a few weeks after returning to Denmark, the Danish family receives an invitation to visit the Dutch family at their home in the country. Louise seems uncomfortable with the invitation; they really only spent two days with this other family.
But Bjørn, who we see going through the motions of his life (work, one of Agnes’s recitals, dinner with friends of convenience), seems enthusiastic about the idea, desperate for anything to break the monotony. And eventually, with the help of some friends, he is able to pressure Louise into accepting the invitation.
From the moment they arrive, everything is off. Not bad necessarily, but off. Patrick offers Louise her favorite part of a roast of hers and insists that she eat it even after she refuses because she is a vegetarian. On the first night, the Dutch family’s son screams to sleep, but Patrick and Karin (Karina Smulders) assure the Danes that it’s normal. The wonderful thing about Speak No Evil is that even before any of these moments, there is a palpable sense that something terrible is going to happen.
There’s the aforementioned score and the sharp, high-contrast way the film is shot, along with deep yellow, orange, and red-toned lighting that gives a sense of danger, but it’s almost impossible to identify specifically what makes each moment be so painfully tense. It’s some kind of magic trick on Tafdrup’s part, but not one that fills you with awe.
As the journey continues, there are more and more red flags. But Bjørn and Louise can’t bring themselves to leave simply because it would be too impolite. At one point, they try to leave, but Patrick and Karin’s feeble attempts to acknowledge the discomfort they’ve caused draw them in. It’s almost a comedy of errors, except the whole thing makes you feel like you’re going to implode from the stress.
When the climax finally comes, it’s almost underwhelming. It doesn’t seem like a spoiler to reveal that there is a reveal (the content of which, of course, I won’t mention), as movies like these are designed to stretch the tension as much as possible before delivering “the goods”. ” as if.
But while the reveal here is undeniably terrifying, in a way that feels unique and very possible, it lets steam out of the kettle in a way that makes the overall movie feel less interesting. The intensity of the film’s ending also moves it more firmly toward extreme horror than the tense, gut-wrenching psychological terror of its first two-thirds. Overwhelmingly, I’d applaud the extreme, especially in such an artfully made film, but here it feels like an unnecessary exclamation point in a sentence that would have been more powerful with ellipses.
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Speak No Evil is incredibly effective, a comedy of errors played with such intensity that it’s almost hard to sit down, but its ending undoes some of that tension.