Few films can capture the pure oddity of social norms and extrapolate them for horrific ends. Yet Speak No Evil is not a typical film. The excellent thriller from Christian Tafdrup strikes at sheer silliness behind normalcy. The Sundance breakout has plenty on its mind, from how culture changes within small regions to a takedown of manners. With one of the best finales of the festival in its back pocket, Speak No Evil seems primed to develop a strong cult following.
Speak No Evil follows a young Dutch family on vacation to Italy. The husband, Bjørn (Morten Burian), struggles to connect with anyone around him. His listless demeanor surprises his wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), urging him to have a good time with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). Shortly after, Bjørn meets Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), and the two dads hit it off. The resulting friendship surprises Bjørn and Louise when Patrick invites their family to visit his family in Holland. After Bjørn, Louise, and Agnes arrive for the weekend, something immediately appears wrong, especially with Patrick’s son Abel.
Tafdrup’s film builds off a simple premise, but its results are wildly unnerving. Speak No Evil builds its tension with scary precision and skill as a thriller. It never lets off the gas, and Tafdrup handles the crescendo with grace. It does not attempt to surprise you in its direction, yet that does not make Speak No Evil‘s revelations any less upsetting.
Yet the film has more on its mind. Tafdrup’s lampooning of our cultural norms works as both social commentaries and as a way to add tension to the film. The audience will want to scream at our characters because something is wrong in Holland. Yet Tafdrup effectively gaslights his characters, causing them to question their actions and paranoia. It’s something that most of us feel in social settings, and our hopes to build relationships often outweigh our logic.
Taking a step back, it’s clear that Tafdrup looks to critique western social structures as a whole. It is one thing to endanger oneself, but it is another to put others at risk. Many of us believe in the inherent good in people. Because of this, we can be blind to the malicious intents of others. Yet Speak No Evil highlights greed and a continual thirst for more, regardless of the consequences. It’s a powerful metaphor, not only for our personal lives but also as a critique of the rising of authoritarianism worldwide.
Beyond its heavy social and interpersonal themes, Speak No Evil features excellent performances from its six ensemble members. Koch stands out as an unnerved woman who has grown frustrated with her husband and yearns for who she used to be. Koch taps into regret and frustration through her facial dexterity, allowing her to play the subtle notes of the role. The skepticism from Koch complements Burian’s excitement, both as a tool for rising tension and their ability to showcase a struggling marriage.
Burian develops his character as a man in mid-life crisis mode, and his ability to play a man “blinded by charisma” helps the drama remain effective. Huêt seemingly swims in a river of charisma, immediately pulling your attention to his every move. His charm and comedic timing are perfectly utilized and draws you in at every turn. Eventually, this persona falls away, giving way to a rock star, frat-boy attitude towards life. Huêt navigates the extremes of his character and subtlety turns up the heat on our protagonists in the process. It is impressive to marry seemingly two different versions of his character in a believable and upsetting progression.
With Tafdrup’s social commentary and the ensemble’s brilliant performances, Speak No Evil stands out as one of the better horror films of the festival. There are moments when the film drags, and character decisions can be called into question. Yet the result is a thrilling ride, more than worthy of celebration. Tafdrup continues to build an exciting resume as a director with his third feature. If Speak No Evil is any indicator, he should have even more exciting films in his future.