Sundance 2022 SPEAK NO EVIL Review

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Social politeness hits a tense, humorous, uncomfortable wall in this dark horror comedy from director Christian Tafdrup.

Synopsis

A Danish family visits a Dutch family they met on a holiday. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unraveling as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of unpleasantness.

Review
This past weekend, I attended the totally-virtual Sundance Film Festival 2022. The first film on my radar was part of their Midnight program where they collect films that “defy categorization”. First up on the list was Christian Tafdrup’s “Speak No Evil,” a dark comedic satire about the pitfalls (and dire consequences) of social politeness. While on a holiday, Danish couple Bjørn and Louise meet and have a great time with Dutch couple Patrick and Karin. Bjørn sees something in Patrick and Karin he doesn’t see in his own relationship with Louise. They are different from the other married friends they hang out with – they’re fun(ny), slightly more free-spirited and there’s a friendly warmness (specifically in Patrick’s eyes) that is welcoming to Bjørn.

A few months later, Bjørn, Louise and their young daughter Agnes receive an invite from the Dutch couple to spend with a few days with them in their woodsy home. Louise at first declines the offer to Bjørn as they barely know these people enough to spend a few days with them. This is a key moment where Bjørn puts his foot down and decides to go for something new – a new friend. The Danish family travels to the Dutch’s family home where Patrick, Louise and their orally-impaired son Abel welcome them. The vacation starts well enough with some humorous, uncomfortable quirks: Agnes has to sleep on a flat futon next to Abel instead of on a comfortable bed; Patrick has very harsh parenting methods when dealing with his son Abel that makes the Danish couple a little unsettled; when going out for drinks, Patrick and Karin leave a strange man (who barely speaks any English) to look after Abel and Agnes; while out drinking, the two couples dance to a slow song, with Bjørn and Louise having mild fun and Patrick and Karin making out ruthlessly on the dance floor. Bjørn and Louise’s politeness almost hit a head as their hosts and their quirks become weirder and weirder, going past cringe comedy to truly uncomfortable social horror.

Morten Burian shines in his performance as Bjørn, the nice guy who just wants a more exciting marriage and life like his newfound friend Patrick. He carries the perfect mix of expressions ranging from friendly to perplexed to horrified as he tries his best to carry a smile throughout all the madness. Sidsel Siem Koch also shines as Louise, keeping a good poker face on as she finds herself more keen to some of the strangeness going on then her naïve husband. On the flipside, Fedja van Huêt also gives a great performance as Patrick, knowing when to turn on the happy-go-lucky side of his character but also the creepy, lurking (and menacing) side of him. Director Christian Tafdrup does a great job racketing the social tension as the film barrels through, making the audience question how far is the film going to go in its uncomfortable ridiculousness. The Dutch family is indeed a strange one and until it’s disturbing climax, the film shrewdly holds its cards close to its chest in revealing if and maybe (how) demented these happy-go-lucky people are.

Because of its shocking conclusion alone, “Speak No Evil” is not for everyone. The cringe material throughout the film is presented well and there’s some very good stock of dark comedy. However, this is a film that is not necessarily meant to be liked or enjoyed. It wants to provoke you as it’s part of the point. The film’s merely toys with its audience, putting them in the place of Bjørn to test as to whether they are a pushover or not. “Speak No Evil” cleverly holds up a mirror to social politeness and explores the question – how long can you deliver politeness in the face of careless nonchalance? In spite of all this – great acting, solid direction, unforgettable climax – there are still some minor gripes to be had. Without giving it away, by the time the film’s major twist appears, one must fight to carry a suspension of disbelief as the film’s major reveal doesn’t prove to be as plausible as the film may want it to be. There’s also a very grim ending which is very much earned but doesn’t leave much to be examined as the film doesn’t have much to say except “being too nice could cost you”. This limiting theme makes one question if the social horror that is explored in this film is as thought-provoking as it is made out to be.


Closing Thoughts
“Speak No Evil” works for what it is – a solidly directed tense horror comedy that pokes fun at the everyday facades we carry as “nice people”. The acting all around is great as everyone understands the uncomfortable material they have at hand and is game. It may not have the most passable or plausible ending twist but this is for sure a film that is due to shock and horrify some audiences in the near future.


Trailer