Speak No Evil

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The Americanized title Speak No Evil only really makes sense after you’ve watched the film; the original Danish title is Gæsterne, or Guests, which has some of the same deadpan wit as the movie itself. Either way it’s a creepy and needling thriller that takes the premise of something like 1981’s Neighbors — these people seem hostile and strange, but we must maintain our politesse — right up to the edge of horror and then pushes it over. Directed by Christian Tafdrup, who has a reputation for social commentary, Speak No Evil would fall apart if its protagonists were crass and unconcerned with hurting others’ feelings or with being seen as insensitive. It’s the movie’s observation of mores and behavior that makes it so unsettling and, in the end, such a sharp knock in the chops.

It may go without saying that the lead couple, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), are upper-middle-class; they can afford a vacation in Tuscany, and only a little while later they can afford to travel to visit a Dutch couple they met in Tuscany. The Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), seem warm and welcoming at first. But almost right away, they start transgressing good manners. Louise has said she’s a vegetarian, yet Patrick practically forces her to nibble a piece of beef he’s just cooked. There are other weirdnesses, and when we look back on the script, by Tafdrup and his brother Mads, we may realize just how tight it is, how many details are there right from the start. If Bjørn had been less laid-back about Patrick taking the pool chair, the movie would probably end there.

It doesn’t, and after a while we may also realize that Bjørn is an ideal mark, if that’s what he is. He isn’t just polite; he finds himself drawn to what he perceives as Patrick’s wilder existence. How right Bjørn’s instincts turn out to be is one of the dark jokes of the movie, which unfolds with an elegant malevolence, heightened now and then by ominous rumbles and stabs of Sune Kølster’s score. (The way the music sometimes surges up, seemingly apropos of nothing at all onscreen, is yet another way Tafdrup keeps us disoriented.) At a certain point, we may think Bjørn and Louise — and their little daughter Agnes — are in the clear, but their hosts lure them back in. Back into what, though? Are Patrick and Karin not just eager hosts, if a little unconventional? Are we not betraying some class prejudice towards them (their house is nice if a little small and cluttered) as well as some ableist bigotry because they have a little son, Abel, who was born without most of his tongue?

Well, it’s that sort of thinking that Christian Tafdrup wants to incinerate, or at least to throw back in our faces. Like many effective horror-thrillers, Speak No Evil is not remotely nice — in its universe, giving people the benefit of the doubt leads nowhere good. The acting is natural and pulls you along on a leash of credibility. Van Huêt and Smulders are particularly adept at making Patrick and Karin seem misunderstood; their customs are just a little different, that’s all. Right? They’re so nice, and they’d be so sad to see you go; why would you want to hurt them by leaving? Nobody wants to say no, nobody wants to look like a dick. They would rather die a slow, brutal death than be seen as stuck-up and rude.

Explore posts in the same categories: foreign, horror, thriller

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