Bear (Morten Burian) and Patrick (Fedja van Huet) take their anger out on the empty countryside, where they scream at full voice to diffuse the tension that threatened to ruin their seemingly successful friendship. Bear believes that the animalistic ceremony has cemented them together, but in reality, this excursion is only the beginning of the end.
With Sune Kölster’s unnerving orchestral score playing in the background from the opening frames, the viewer is given hints that something horrifying is going to happen soon. Nevertheless, nothing can prepare you for the appalling dark places “Speak No Evil” goes to.
This darkly comedic cautionary narrative about giving up one’s personal space for the sake of politeness, reminiscent of Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” and Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” is a thriller with a ghost story tacked on.
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Two months prior, the two men happened to meet in Tuscany on holiday with their respective families. When Patrick, a rugged Dutch charmer, praises Bear from Denmark on his bravery, the Dane’s act is finding a plush rabbit belonging to his daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). A shit-eating grin crosses Bear’s face after he receives an ego boost from a guy he immediately respects.
Bear is attracted to Patrick’s confident demeanor and begins to idolize him. Bear, who always follows societal norms and rules, doesn’t know how to express his pent-up desires after meeting Patrick-a man who does whatever he pleases without consequence or judgement. Even when Bjørn returns home to Copenhagen, he cannot forget the longing for change that was sparked within him.
The fact that Patrick can control Bear’s mind through subtle remarks and gaslighting instead of having any direct conversation with him highlights the Tafdrups’ impressive writing skills. The more time Bear spends with Patrick, the worse the effects of being controlled becomes, despite his wife Louise’s (Sidsel Siem Koch) initial reservations about letting him go to visit them in their home in rural Holland.
In old-fashioned custom, the Danish family reconnects with Patrick (Peter Hermann), his vivacious wife Karin (Karina Smulders) and their young son Abel (Marius Damslev), who is unable to speak due to a birth defect. Because Tafdrup and cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen employ unshowy natural light like a social realist drama to shoot the interactions inside the home, it’s easy to overlook the genre. There are no jump scares in this film; rather, there are uncomfortable silences and telling glances.
The Dane’s tolerance to insensitivity is quickly put to the test. First, Patrick pretends not to notice Louise’s vegetarian diet, while Karin demands that Agnes share a room with Abel. The hosts’ first approach, however, cannot be described as openly aggressive or hurtful. The Danes remain in these relationships because they fear if they confront their partner or leave, it will be seen as impolite.
Bear and Louise feel nervous and uncomfortable as they witness Patrick and Karin’s rude behavior, but they don’t want to confront them about it. The viewer may get frustrated with Bear and Louise for not speaking up sooner, but it’s hard to say how anyone would react in such an ambiguous situation.
The film’s name is taken from a Bible verse that also contains the commandment. “be gentle and polite to all people.” However, when Louise follows the authorities’ instructions without thinking and against her instincts, it eventually makes her uncomfortable and attracts her partner’s attention, though it may be too late. The final scene, in which Krzysztof Burian as Bear goes from admiration to betrayal and culminating in paralyzing fear, is the most drastic emotional shift for a superb performance that ends in devastating death.
Burian’s incredible display of versatility works only because Tafdrup was somehow able to cast and control committed actors who were ready to go the full range of what their characters experience or commit—even if it meant unthinkable actions. For example, to play Patrick, van Huêt operates with a macho persona that is easily turned off for disarming vulnerability. Bear falls for it repeatedly because he feels seen and wants to emulate his spontaneous gallantry.
Because Patrick and Karin’s sick plot works perfectly to get what they want, one minor complaint with “Speak No Evil” is that the filmmakers don’t satisfy our desire to know more about how they got into this abhorrent lifestyle and how they’ve maintained it so effectively. Tafdrup, of course, risked contrivances in the tale or revealing too much too soon by doing so.
The bewitching aspect of Patrick and Karin’s endgame is what makes it so effective in reeling in their victims. “Speak No Evil” a study of human psychology that is both disturbing and fascinating. Don’t expect cheap thrills or excessive bloodshed, but the intellectually challenging construction does pay off. Tafdrup leads us into a violent conclusion, perhaps the most unflinchingly intense ending of any horror film released in 2018.
Catch it in theaters now or streaming on Shudder starting September 15th.
Writers:Christian TafdrupMads Tafdrup
Stars:Morten BurianSidsel Siem KochFedja van Huêt