As summer gives ways to fall, Shudder continues to platform a diverse range of domestic and international horror titles for audiences. Just weeks ahead of Halloween, this week’s latest release is Danish horror thriller Speak No Evil. From writer and director Christian Tafdrup, Speak No Evil finds its horror from the cultural misunderstandings between Danish and Dutch couples. Hilarity most likely does not ensue in what critics have so far heralded as an absolutely disturbing thriller.
On a family trip to Tuscany, Danish couple Bjorn and Louise, along with their young daughter, meet the charming Dutch, Patrick, and his wife and son. Both families hit it off and months after their vacation, Patrick invites Bjorn and his family to stay with them. At first, the families continue to hit it off – the reserved Bjorn admires Patrick’s rugged and blunt demeanor. But cultural differences and tensions quickly emerge. Soon the two families find themselves at odds. With each passing day, Bjorn and Louise fear for their safety while finding themselves unable to leave without offending their hosts.
Speak No Evil Quietly Shifts From Discomfort to Sheer Horror
Two different movies connected by a common narrative thread define Speak No Evil. For much of its runtime, Speak No Evil is an increasingly tense and awkward exploration of cultural differences and misunderstandings. Writer and director Christian Tafdrup and co-writer and brother Mads Tafdrup contrast and satirize the meek Bjorn with the more manly Patrick. Subtle tensions emerge between the two couples that initially feel benign. When Patrick and his wife, Karin, grope and make out a local roadside restaurant in front of their guest, it’s uncomfortable but within the realm of awkward social interactions one could expect to encounter. But each misunderstanding gives way to a more serious one that’s inevitably followed by Patrick and Karin gaslighting the Danish couple.
Writer and director Christian Tafdrup and co-writer and brother Mads Tafdrup contrast and satirize the meek Bjorn with the more manly Patrick.
When Patrick allows their guest’s daughter to sleep in their bed while he lies naked, however, Speak No Evil fully embraces its horror elements. As the second half of the movie accelerates the tension, the horrors similarly shift from misunderstandings to more familiar tropes. Not surprisingly, Patrick and Karin are hiding a darker secret than boorish behaviour. In its final 15 minutes, Speak No Evil becomes quietly unbearable as Tafdrup delivers some of the more disturbing shocks in recent memory. The fact that the haunting finale is set against a beautifully piled movie and haunting score only serves to elevate the overall experience.
Speak No Evil Relies Too Heavily on Illogical Characters to Advance Its Story
Where Speak No Evil runs into problems is the latter half as more familiar horror elements creep into the movie. To his credit, Tafdrup maintains that sense of dread right up to the disturbing finale. And on a purely emotional level, Speak No Evil is as impactful as any horror movie or thriller in recent memory. But Tafdrup and co-writer Mads Tafdrup pen a story that requires people to behave in unbelievable ways to move all of its narrative pieces into place. Yes, these incongruent story bits serve a larger, misanthropic theme. Nonetheless, Speak No Evil forces the audience to suspend a lot of disbelief. Without spoiling the movie, no parent would respond the way the protagonists do in their circumstances. Simply put, the storytelling mechanics are a bit clumsy. And if this were a Hollywood thriller, critics would rightly point that out.
Nonetheless, Speak No Evil forces the audience to suspend a lot of disbelief.
Regardless of these shortcomings, Speak No Evil’s central performances are uniformly excellent. Fedja van Huêt’s coarse ‘Patrick’ makes for an interesting contrast to the often emasculated Bjorn played by Morten Burian. For nearly half of the movie, Burian’s ‘Bjorn’ clearly admires the more adventurous Patrick, often to his wife’s chagrin. One almost feels sorry for Bjorn once he fully understands Patrick’s viciousness and still remains powerless to do anything about it. Running beneath the movie’s surface, the Tafdrups seemingly take aim at our over-socialized tendency to restrain our more natural tendencies. Arguably, Sidsel Siem Koch’s performance as Bjorn’s stronger wife, Lousie, stands out as the movie’s best performance.
Speak No Evil Overcomes Some Logic Problems to Deliver a Disturbing Finale
Regardless of the liberties Speak No Evil takes with its storytelling and character arcs, it remains a truly haunting horror movie. Its first half is a case study in eliciting supreme discomfort from often nothing more than awkward social interactions. And while some of the characters’ behavior puzzles, the second half – particularly the final 15 minutes – is disturbing. Amidst the chills and tensions, Speak No Evil boasts beautiful production values, strong performances, and a bit of biting subtext. Though it’s not for everyone and may be too disturbing to re-visit, this is one of the more poignant horror efforts in recent memory.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+