Speak No Evil opens with a contextless ride down a long dark road, before abandoning genre conventions for less foreboding settings. When we meet Bjorn (Morten Burian), his wife Louisa (Sidsel Siem Koch) and young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) they don’t appear to have a worry in the world. The little family have taken a break from their busy lives in Copenhagen to enjoy a leisurely stay in a gorgeous Tuscan villa. The trip is all good food and better weather, and the biggest problem the family encounters is their daughter leaving behind her beloved stuffed bunny in the charming cafes where they opt to have lunch.
During one of their strolls, they befriend a Dutch family staying at the same resort. Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) charms them effortlessly, complimenting Bjorn for his bunny locating skills. His wife Karin (Karina Smulders) is just as cheerful, and they have a son roughly Agnes’ age. Young Abel (Marius Damslev) isn’t as gregarious as his parents, but seems to warm up to his new playmate well enough.
The two families are inseparable for the duration of their vacation. In fact, the trip was so memorable that Bjorn and Louisa receive a postcard from their new friends a few months later, inviting them for a visit to their home in the Dutch countryside. Bjorn is very enthusiastic for a break from the city, Louisa slightly less enthused to spend so much time with people she barely knows. Bjorn’s optimism wins out, and they pack up the car for a long weekend.
It’s easy to seem carefree on a vacation, removed from everyday responsibilities. It’s also very easy to be on one’s best behavior for short periods. The two families had an easy rapport in the Italian sunshine, but the visit starts to flatline almost immediately. Speak No Evil‘s script (co written by Mads Tafdrup and director Christian Tafdrup) deftly balances the Dutch couple’s boundary pushing into the realm of passive aggressive, plausible deniability. Patrick insists the vegetarian Louisa eat meat, and they expect Agnes to sleep on a make shift pallet on the floor. Karin and Patrick invite their guests to dinner, then stick them with the extravagant bill.
All of these small transgressions could be social awkwardness or something more malicious, depending on your point of view. The title and the marketing material make very clear that something sinister is coming, but without that specific knowledge, the film could pass as a cringe fueled comedy for its early runtime.
Director Christian Tafdrup utilizes the color and sweep of his various lush locations to help quietly build atmosphere. As the two families wander through Italian streets and Dutch fields, what should read as beautiful seems lonely and sinister, Erik Molberg Hansen’s cinematography utilizing wide panoramic angles that miniaturize the figures in the frame. The family home that looks cheerfully cozy in daylight, goes wan and shadowy at night, the emphasis on dark corners made for lurking.
Sune Kølster’s scoring makes interesting use of negative space, utilizing more traditional suspense cues in the film’s happy moments, swapping to minimalism as terror begins to creep into the narrative. It’s an interesting digression from expectations, and helps keep the mood off balance and tense before anything overtly horrific happens.
Speak No Evil takes its time unveiling its more overtly genre elements, and does have some of the second act sag typical to thriller inflected narratives where the audience must wait for the characters to catch up. Thankfully, the small cast all give nicely nuanced performances, and there’s no precocious mugging from either of the child actors. Fedja van Huêt’s Patrick gets the more showily sinister work to do, his charm offensive gradually emphasizing the back half of that phrase. However, it is Karina Smulders’ cooly calculating Karin that steals the show with her subtly ever shifting sympathies.
Speak No Evil finally settles into an inverse home invasion narrative, with our protagonists’ sympathetic natures and reluctance to offend helping to hold them hostage. This has been popular thematic territory for festival fare in the last few years. Homewrecker examined the effects of gendered expectations of politeness on creating toxic competition amongst women. Coming Home In The Dark utilized a similar riff on home invasion tropes to open a larger dialog about institutionalized violence in residential schools, and how people can become desensitized to everyday brutalities.
Speak No Evil isn’t quite as ambitious in scope, content to tell an occasionally vicious cautionary tale of how social constructs can fail us when they override our better instincts and common sense. This is well worn conceptual ground, in a narrative structure that will be familiar to the genre fans most likely to greet this film with open arms when it reaches the wider public.
The movie is otherwise too well crafted for that familiarity to fully breed contempt, but the reluctance to choose a harder thematic target to hit definitely defangs both the satire and the shocks. Neither lands with the Funny Games inflected force the filmmakers seem to be aiming for. Speak No Evil is a polished piece of filmmaking, with carefully curated aesthetics and a committed cast. It just seems a bit of a missed opportunity that the film never finds something more incisive to say.
Director: Christian Tafdrup
Writer(s): Christian Tafdrup, Mads Tafdrup
Stars: Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt
Release date: January 21st, 2022 (Sundance Film Festival)
Studio/Production: Profile Pictures, OAK Motion Pictures
Languages: Dutch, English, Danish
Run Time: 97 minutes