To diffuse the tension that nearly destroyed their seemingly blossoming friendship, Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) drive to an empty landscape where they unleash their pent-up aggression by screaming at the top of their lungs. Freed, Bjorn believes that the animal ritual has bound them, but in reality this excursion is the beginning of the end.
And while the clues of impending horror emerge long before this episode of camaraderie – signaled by Sune Kölster‘s jittery orchestral score from the opening frames—nothing can quite prepare you for the chillingly dark places “Speak No Evil” is headed.
From a Danish actor who has become a director Christian Tafdrupwho wrote the script with his brother Mads Tafdrupthis brilliantly bleak cautionary tale about allowing others to cross one’s boundaries for the sake of politeness evokes both the Swedish director’s male angst Ruben Östlund‘s”Force majeure” and the evil of Michael Haneke‘s”Fun games.”
The two men first met months ago in Tuscany while on vacation with their respective families. In one of their earliest meetings, Patrick, a gruff Dutch charmer, makes a good impression when he unironically compliments Bjørn, from Denmark, on his heroism. The Dane’s feat: finding a plush rabbit belonging to his daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). With an ego boost from a man he instantly respects, Bjørn’s face crosses a shit-eating grin.
Lured by Patrick’s nonchalant confidence, Bjørn develops a platonic attraction. As an unfulfilled victim of societal conventions who always play by the rules, the pleasant Danish father and husband finds in Patrick a model of assertive masculinity who does as he pleases and speaks his mind uninhibited. Even at home in Copenhagen, Bjørn is unable to shake the unspoken desire to leave passivity behind that his new friend awakened in him.
That Patrick’s subliminal infiltration of Bjørn’s receptive psyche takes place via inconspicuous remarks and gaslighting tactics, but never overt dialogue, speaks to the unusual flexibility of Tafdrup’s writing. The poisonous insidiousness only deepens the more time they spend together after an eager Bjørn accepts Patrick’s invitation to visit them in the Dutch countryside, despite his wife Louise’s (Sidsel Siem Koch) initial hesitation.
As usual, the Danish clan reunites with Patrick, his vivacious wife Karin (Karina Smulders) and their young son Abel (Marius Damslev), born with a condition that prevents speaking. Since Tafdrup and cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen recording the interactions in the home with the unshowy natural lighting that resembles a social realist drama, one can forget the genre at times. There are no jump scares here, just awkward silences and telling looks.
Almost immediately, the Dane’s tolerance for disrespect is put to the test. First with Patrick pretending to ignore Louise’s vegetarian diet, and Karin ordering Agnes to sleep in the same room as Abel. But nothing the hosts do can initially be described as overtly aggressive or offensive. And the probable denial of malice persuades the Danes to refrain from interrogating them or from leaving directly. Afraid of hurting the other party’s feelings or being perceived as rude, they accept the treatment as a consequence of a cultural gap.
Caught in the dynamics of politeness – part of the reason they even agreed to visit strangers in another country – Bjørn and Louise feel powerless as they experience yet more violations that clearly cross the line. And yet they choose to stay because Patrick and Karin’s mental warfare addresses their discomfort with confrontation. And as much as we, the viewer, may feel frustrated by their decisions, it’s impossible not to wonder how much one would put up with before reacting under the ambiguous circumstances.
The Bible verse from which the film takes its title also contains the mandate to “be gentle and courteous to all men.” But acting blindly according to this prescribed code of conduct and against their gut eventually puts Louise on edge and makes her partner take notice, even though it may be too late. Burian as Bjørn completes the most drastic emotional transition from admiration to betrayal in a devastating performance that ends in paralyzing shock.
But Burian’s astonishing display of range only works because Tafdrup was somehow able to cast and direct committed actors willing to run the full gamut of what their characters endure or do — even the most unspeakable actions. To play Patrick, for example, van Huêt operates with a calibrated interpretation of the macho persona that can easily switch off the combative attitude to disarm vulnerability. Bjørn falls for it repeatedly because he feels seen and wants to imitate his spontaneous gallantry.
And because Patrick and Karin’s perverse plan works wonderfully to achieve what they’re after, a minor quibble with “Speak No Evil” is that the filmmakers don’t satiate our curiosity to learn more about what led them to this monstrous lifestyle, and how they have maintained it with such skill. But in doing so, Tafdrup may of course have risked opening the door to fabrications in the plot or to revealing too much too soon.
It is precisely the concealment of Patrick and Karin’s end game and the way they bewitch their willing victims that makes “Speak No Evil” a disturbingly fascinating study of human psychology. Don’t expect cheap thrills or lots of gore, but the intellectually intricate build-up pays off. Once the evil reveals itself, Tafdrup leads us into a merciless resolution, perhaps the most unrelentingly shocking ending to any horror film this year.
Now playing in select theaters and available on Shudder on September 15th.