Still from Speak No Evil (2022) - Danish/Dutch horror film

Speak No Evil (2022) – Sundance Film Festival

Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup brings a meticulously crafted, blood-curdling story about letting evil do as it pleases. Speak No Evil (2022) is one of the tensest thrillers in recent years.

Why do bad people do bad things?

Reasons vary. Aristotle claimed that violence is embedded in human design, and it is the result of various factors that push people to act. Modern psychology views violence as a response to negative emotions, a reaction possibly propelled by a traumatic past or mental health issues. No wonder numerous horror stories incorporated such problems as the reasons for the inclination to act violently. Jigsaw deployed his angel-of-retribution scheme, meanwhile, legions of other iconic murderers had all been mistreated or abused in the past. Then there’s Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2009), an unforgettable film about violence that is gravely flippant, existing without any justification. For the pure entertainment of those inflicting pain on others.

Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup adds an unexpected color to the existing palette. Because you let me – says the main antagonist of the story before proceeding to an act of abominable brutality. Speak No Evil (2022) isn’t as much about savagery as it is about powerlessness.

Before darkness takes over, Speak No Evil (2022) begins with Italian wine and romantic strolls among the gems of historical landmarks and architecture. A couple of Danes – Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) – hopes to relish the lovely scenery. However, things seem rather bland between them. Trivialities ruin their time. There’s a couple that won’t stop talking about their exquisite culinary adventure. Their daughter Agnes forces Bjorn to spend hours trying to find a lost bunny toy. What a mess.

Therefore, when the couple meets Patrick and Karin, a Dutch family that seems to be on the same wavelength (or even a chiller one, for that matter), dark clouds dissolve, and the Italian sunshine warms them tenderly. Summer’s great again. So great actually, that Patrick and Karin invite the Danish family to visit their country house in the Netherlands. Not without hesitation, Bjorn and Louise pack their things and drive to Holland.

Christian Tafdrup’s choice of countries isn’t a roll of dice. On the contrary, the filmmaker purposefully brings the withdrawn Danish culture with the very straightforward Dutch attitude, allowing numerous points of friction to deal intercultural collateral damage. It starts with innocent squabbles – an awkward comment here, an unexpected situation that requires a reaction from Bjorn and Louise who rarely speak up because they try to remain well-mannered at all costs. But in doing so, they also allow the hosts to walk all over them.

Aside from the dynamic between the two couples, Tafdrup also points out their selective moral compass through multiple moments of unease, tension, and sometimes cringe, all caused by the internal dysfunctionality of the Danish family. Therefore, all of Karin and Patrick’s showcases of freedom – a clear difference in temperament – vex the guests. Speak No Evil (2022) excels in oozing the aura of unease, without the need to reach for jump scares or cheap shocks. Instead, it’s the simmering, growing sense of danger that keeps us, the viewers, unsure of what is coming.

This is also a masterfully balanced and precisely designed script. All of the characters are always systematically developed, resulting in an array that never made me doubt their intentions or thoughts. When Patrick and Karin invite their guests to a restaurant, then let the steam off and go lustful-loco on the dancefloor, Tafdrup turns to the point of view of Bjorn who wishes to have the same spontaneous courage but lives a suppressed life. In another scene, a crucial moment in the plot, Louise reveals her inaptitude to be a mother, just minutes after we see her criticize Patrick and Karin’s parenting methods. At her most vulnerable moment, she turns away from her daughter, nonchalantly telling Bjorn to deal with the matter while she processes the situation. Tafdrup smartly juggles with how we perceive each character – moral ambiguity constitutes the backbone of the film.

It’s easy to imagine this thriller becoming an unhinged trip, and yet the Danish filmmaker sticks to the calculated method of storytelling that feels far more rewarding than a bonkers gorefest. As the story simmers, and the horrors begin to gain shape, Speak No Evil (2022) treats us with occasional waves of an overwhelmingly terrifying score, one that checks The Lighthouse’s (2019) vibe. The use of this sound design makes a particularly spine-chilling effect at the beginning of the film – a grim crescendo that heralds the bad things we will witness.

Eventually, Speak No Evil (2022) works because of this immaculate narrative canvas. Writers Christian and Mads Tafdrup don’t bother with meaningless scenes or out-of-the-blue motivations that jeopardize the story. Their film isn’t about the meaning of evil, nor does it explore its roots. But it is about pushing the boundaries, a kind of evil microdosing that we often tend to accept. Piece by piece, the oppressors dismantle the defenses of the victims, claiming territory they will, eventually, burn to the ground for fun. By the end of it, Speak No Evil (2022) had me gripped, angry and powerless, a suffocating blend that didn’t let go easily.

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