Already compared to a Michael Haenke film, Christian Tafdrup’s new psychological horror film Speak No Evil definitely shares a pedigree with the Austrian film director.
Disturbing, bleak, and frighteningly real, Tafdrup has crafted an engrossing and upsetting film, only marred by an ending that – at this point in the game – has been done so many times before it winds up being annoying more than disturbing.
Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are a Danish couple with their daughter, young Agnes (Liva Forsberg), on holiday. There, they meet a Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), and their mute son Abel (Marius Damslev).
Bjorn and Louise are a fairly quiet and keep-to-themselves sort of couple, while Patrick is a bit over-zealous, and his wife Karin goes along for the ride. Not really a friend-match, the two families end up having a lunch together, where Patrick can get Bjorn to open up a bit more, and the couples soon begin to gel. Kind of.
Back home, Bjorn and Louise receive an invite from their new friends to come to their house in the Dutch countryside. Not usually the most outgoing of people, they decide they should try to be more sociable and open up their friend circle, so they accept.
Things seem okay at first, with a few awkward moments, such as the two kids being forced to share a room and Patrick always walking into the bathroom to pee while others are in there. Bjorn and Louise force smiles and carries on, trying hard to push aside any judgments and enjoy their new friends.
The problem is, more and more things seem off. Patrick is annoyingly narcissistic, Karin seems way too accepting of his behavior, and their son – well, he acts a bit odd. When things get too weird for our strait-laced couple, they decide to cut their trip short. But leaving won’t be that easy, and they are seduced back into the fold, where things get more and more troubling.
It’s best to leave the details there as the curiosity and mystery of the film is better to be experienced without any expectations. Tafdrup directs his splendid cast with pitch-perfect performances that get under your skin in good and bad ways.
His script, written with Mads Tafdrup, is an intimate study of our ability to push aside warning signs and try to make everything as benign as we hope. He shows a couple “speaking no evil” about their hosts, even when it is clear things are not right. It’s a look at an overly polite society and what that can do if taken too far – and the dangers that can fester out of it.
The ending is what will be divisive for a lot of people. For those familiar with Haneke and even a popular American 2000s thriller, the final moments and verbal explanation for what happens won’t be terribly surprising or original. And that is where I feel the film falls short. It feels like it wants so badly to be shocking that it forgets it’s not the first to go there. And as a result, it’s more of a shrug and an “ugh” than genuinely distressing.
There’s much to like in this import, and plenty will be disturbed by the events that play out. Just how disturbed you find yourself depends on how much of a film junkie you are.