Christian Tafdrup’s bleak Speak No Evil will undoubtedly draw some comparisons to nihilistic horror satires like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Both seek to make the viewer deeply uncomfortable while sending a caustic message. But while the latter chastised its audience for their consumption of violence, the former struggles with its polite society messaging. It results in a grueling voyage determined to frustrate and antagonize right up until it finally reveals its whole cynical underbelly.
Danish Bjørn (Morten Burian), wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter hit it off with a Dutch family they met on holiday in Italy. Some time passes, and the Dutch family extends an invitation to visit their countryside home for a weekend getaway. At first, the reunion allows the couples to relax and cut loose, but soon eccentricities mount until they feel sinister. Bjørn and Louise become trapped by their own politeness as they attempt to determine their new friends’ intentions.
Tafdrup and co-writer Mads Tafdrup hides the horror for as long as possible, focusing instead on the increasingly uncomfortable dynamics between our protagonists and Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). Awkward social situations often centered around Patrick’s lack of patience with his distant, mute son result in concerned glances and nothing more. The weirder the vibes, the more the red flags appear. Tafdrup spends an inordinate amount of time establishing the constantly moving tolerance threshold for Bjørn and Louise. Patrick crosses it, and the personal space boundaries shift once more.
By the time it all comes to a head, the pitch-black cynical finale comes up far too late and too brief. Shocking acts feel hollow. The demonstrative point of the damage we’ll subject ourselves to for cordiality gets made long before the climax arrives. Tafdrup seems to borrow heavily from Haneke and Bryan Bertino, specifically with punchlines or plot turns, but without understanding what makes their films resonate.
The intent is that the catastrophic outcome for these characters takes a glacially long time to reach a boiling point; everything that transpired was preventable, and untaken exit doors litter the journey. But there’s not much to grab ahold of, no rooting interest to invest in this cautionary tale, and no tension or suspense beyond a constant foreboding thrum that something’s amiss. Not even a clear understanding of the satire, the lush landscapes, or Erik Molberg Hansen’s stunning cinematography can fill the well of emptiness here.
Ultimately, Speak No Evil feels more like a Trojan horse for non-horror fans. A nihilistic satire nestled deep within a strange drama, waiting for unsuspecting viewers to have the rug pulled out from under them at the very last second. However, seasoned horror fans will already be savvy to the tricks, tropes, and plot beats found in this niche subgenre of grim pessimism, making for an unmoving and frustrating experience.