SPEAK NO EVIL is a subtle and sly dissection of how the social compact among human beings and our social conditioning can make us easy prey for predators who know our limitations all too well.
The film is directed by Christian Tafdrup and co-written with his brother Mads Tafdrup. In the introduction for the film at the Sundance premiere, Christian Tafdrup described his and his brother’s ambition to “make the most unpleasant experience for an audience, ever.” Is the film as violent as some of the most notorious gorefests ever made? No, it’s not Cannibal Holocaust, but it does have the evil and smug self-righteousness of human beings inside it, just as the notorious Ruggero Deodato film does.
SPEAK NO EVIL stars Morten Burian as Bjorn, Sidsel Siem Koch as Louise, Fedja van Huêt as Patrick, Karina Smulders as Karin, Liva Forsberg as Agnes, and Marius Damslev as Abel. Burian and Koch do excellent work as naive and bewildered very polite people. Louise is a little more aggressive than Bjorn, but even she cringes away from confrontation for the most part until pushed past her limit. Van Huêt as Patrick is fun and free-spirited until he isn’t and you can see his very real charisma with a hard and nasty undercurrent of spite. Patrick is always weighing his options and continually pushing boundaries because he wants to know what he can get away with and he just enjoys making people feel uncomfortable. Marius Damslev has possibly the most difficult role in the film. He never speaks but he’s an uncomfortable specter flitting among the grown-ups and Agnes.
The story is based on a real-life incident that happened to the director. He and his girlfriend met an “offbeat” Dutch couple on vacation who invited the couple to visit them in Rotterdam. From the story, it sounds like the director felt the situation was weird and they declined the invite. The film imagines what happens if a couple was naive and ignored possible misgivings and accepted that invitation.
The cinematography is tackled by Erik Molberg Hansen who has worked in television and documentary film. It’s bright and sunny when the film is in Tuscany, befitting a happy time, and turns much subdued and dark once the central couple returns to northern Europe. The film’s lighting darkens and becomes more of a sickly golden color as the relations between the two couples become more complex and discordant.
One of the things that make SPEAK NO EVIL so disturbing is watching the polite facades of Bjorn and Louise melt into disappointment. Burian’s performance in particular is one of disappointed betrayal. The actor is quite vulnerable and the hurt look on his face when he is humiliated again and again by the people he thought were his friends is painful to watch.
The other thing that is so disquieting is that the framework of this horror film is set on a polite comedy of manners. It’s very funny and the structure of the film’s script is very much in line with many cringe comedies that you have seen before. But where you would normally find a goofy resolution, in SPEAK NO EVIL, you find cold hard stares and fear seeping out of the protagonists’ pores. It’s the fear of putting your trust in someone and finding out that they do not share your morals or agreement in the social compact of human beings. That they are people who exist not just outside of traditional morality or polite social behavior, but outside of everything that makes us social animals. They don’t have those restraining strictures within them and they don’t care what anyone thinks about it. They can’t be shamed or appealed to by calls to their empathy. They have none. It’s what the victim of a serial abuser or killer finds out when it is far too late to do anything about it. That moment of realization that the world isn’t what you’ve always been told that it was is a terrifying thing. It is especially terrifying when you know that you lack the personality structure to fight back.
SPEAK NO EVIL doesn’t really take a side and that is to its benefit. It merely points out that our normal social conditioning is sometimes what puts us in danger. It tells us that social conditioning doesn’t work on everyone and that there are people out there for whom politeness is not a defense. People who don’t care if they hurt you. People who want to hurt you because they enjoy it. It really brings that truth home to sit on your couch and stare deeply into your eyes.
It’s the loneliness of being separated from the safety of the herd. The cold dark field where all the things that promised protection are rendered useless. It’s the second location that you should never allow yourself to go to. It’s when you realize that all the red flags were there and you ignored them. That’s what SPEAK NO EVIL brings you. The slowly dawning realization that there’s no one to help you and that you don’t know what to do. Extremely well-mannered and archly funny, it freezes your blood.
SPEAK NO EVIL had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Shudder subscribers, rejoice! It was picked up for distribution ahead of its premiere and will be dropped on the streaming service at a later date.