It takes a good horror movie to make audiences not question why the characters onscreen don’t just simply run away from the very dangerous situations they find themselves in. Movies like The Conjuring and It Follows never let the audience settle on the question because the answer is clear: whatever’s haunting the people in the story is inescapable (or requires a considerable amount of money to move out, as is the case in some haunted house movies).
Danish director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, now streaming on Shudder, opts for inviting the question. It wants audiences to ask themselves why the family at the center of it doesn’t just leave terrible place they’re in and the horrible people inhabiting it. The reason? Because he’s found an answer that might explain why we as people resist fleeing when the bad starts stacking up, and it’s not for any noble reason. Tafdrup’s deeply disturbing and brutal film makes his characters suffer extensively for staying and it makes for a visceral experience.
Speak No Evil follows a Danish family (Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch with Liva Forsberg playing the young daughter role) as they take up an invitation to visit a family from Holland (Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders with Marius Damslev playing the role of their son) who they met while vacationing in Italy. The Danish family are a bit unsure about spending a weekend with this Dutch family because they’re basically strangers despite the time they spent together during the trip. They decide to accept their invitation but very quickly find out the Dutch family carry a very particular kind of strange with them. From then on, it’s a slow but fascinating descent into a hell of anxiety, politeness, and other people.
I want to make special mention of Sune Kølster’s score for the movie before discussing anything else. It can best be described as an exercise in creating an atmosphere of impending apocalypse. It’s expertly used in key sequences that don’t necessarily lead to moments of intense terror. Instead, it’s used as an announcement of absolute doom and its inevitability. It serves to keep the audience unsettled and concerned for the Danish family given the more outright horror parts of the movie are reserved for the very end of the story.
The rest of the movie, up to just before the final act, is essentially a series of nuanced events that peel back the layers of discomfort and awkwardness between the two families. The fact they know so little of each other starts to become very apparent, and there’s something off about the Dutch family. This forces the Danish family down a path of strained political correctness and forced politeness to try and avoid as much unpleasantness as possible. They fail at it, and watching it all devolve into an awkward mess of social pleasantries makes for an uncomfortable watch that is consistently fascinating.
It brings it all back to the question of why anyone would stay put in a place that’s so obviously not right. As the movie progresses, the answer to that question is fear of coming off as impolite. The Danish family’s unconscious commitment to not breaking the rules of social interaction and the expectation of it essentially imprisons them in a home that hides some truly sinister secrets behind the façade of familial normalcy.
In a way, the story finds its horror in the cages we build for ourselves by making decisions designed not for one’s own safety and security but for the sake of the perception others might have of us, or the opinions they might formulate about us based on how willing we are to avoid confrontation.
The idea blooms onscreen thanks in large part to the performances of the entire cast. The Danish couple, especially, put in the work to project physical discomfort to the point it hurts to watch them flail about emotionally to keep things under control without imposing their wills. For instance, Morten Burian (who plays the Danish father figure) has what seems like a permanent forced smile on his face for almost the entire movie, showing a kind of desperation to abide by the codes of conduct without ruffling feathers or inconveniencing anyone.
There’s a scene where Sidsel Siem Koch’s character, the Danish mother figure, is offered a piece of meat after having explicitly told the other family she’s a vegetarian. She reluctantly accepts the meat to keep the peace while her husband tries to brush the tension away with a smile. From there, the slights and the clashes just escalate until real evil starts seeping out.
Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders, who play the Dutch couple, dive into their performances with a rawness that makes the viewing experience itself come off as a test of endurance. They emotionally torture the other family with a false sense of kindness that casts doubt as to whether they are actually evil or if they’re just a very different an odd kind of family.
Director Tafdrup sets up the proverbial game board perfectly for a finale that shocks with its brutality. Once the design is laid bare, the implications of every decision made by the Danish family start to unravel, making the already painful process of seeing a family try so hard to please people that aren’t returning the favor become even more excruciating.
The finale is a descent into hell unlike any other. The audience is invited to think about the ‘what ifs’ of the many decisions not made before it got the point of no return. It’s not so much a punch to the gut as it as a cruel stabbing of the senses that leaves the audience broken and hopeless.
Revealing more would be doing Speak No Evil a disservice. It’s such a finely tuned piece of horror filmmaking that it just demands to be watched, experienced, and felt. The darkness slowly burrows itself under the skin as the story unfolds, and when its finally ready to show its ugly face it proceeds to do so with malicious intent. There’s a lesson in there too. When it looks like things are taking a turn and your senses tell you to flee, screw politeness and run as fast as you can.