These days, the mere thought of going on a vacation is enough to inspire terror. Let alone the prospect of meeting up with complete strangers. You don’t need to do much nowadays to make the promise of seeing other people in exotic locations unsettling, but that shouldn’t discount the patient, disconcerting ease through which director Christian Tafdrup (A Horrible Woman) gets us into the discomforting headspace of our hapless Dutch family, who gradually nestle themselves into an uncomfortable union with an overextending Dansion couple who ring no shortage of red flags throughout their hospitality in Speak No Evil.
Tonally assured, boldly brazen, and smartly executed, this vacation-gone-wrong horror film doesn’t play out in unexpected ways, but in key ways, that proves to be the point. The nearly-sadistic manner in which it shows how the middle class can ignore their best instincts and do what we think is proper and polite, even in the face of clear danger, is startlingly realized and swiftly executed, complete with a droning score that never fails to make us feel even the slightest bit of comfort throughout this brooding excursion.
During a casual vacation in Tuscany, Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), along with their bright-eyed young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), stubble upon the company of Patrick (Fedja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), along with their wordless son, Abel (Marius Damslev), and quickly become fast friends. Always quick with a joke or a compliment, Patrick proves to be a great guide, while Karin’s warm demeanor is effortlessly charming in her own right.
After getting along famously, it makes the question of whether this faraway couple should accept Patrick and Karin’s invitation to stay at their home for another getaway a bit of a no-brainer. But as Bjorn and Louise reacquaint with this cheery couple, it’s apparent that their quirks carry a thorny edge, and their actions raise more than a few concerns for Louise in particular. It’s clear that these people aren’t exactly who they thought they once were, but for reasons in and out of their control, Bjorn and Louise continue to stick around. As the nights continue to go on, though, something sinister seems to be afoot. By the time they realize what that is, it may be too late.
Favoring the sort of cynical worldview that has become more popular and prevalent in arthouse cinema and “elevated horror,” whatever that term continues to mean, Speak No Evil confidently carries itself with an air of assured tension and nervous energy, showcasing a simple-but-smart example of how one doesn’t need to stray too far to get into the unsettled headspace of your average parent. When you bring a child into this world, there’s always the unsettling sense that you are walking into unsettled waters, that even the friendliest person might have sinister intent. This is made literal with extremism and callousness in Speak No Evil, but the film is no less effective in what it communicates.
Through its sullen demeanor mixed with an eerie everyday feel, Speak No Evil strikes a difficult balance in communicating the everlasting terrors of normal life, while not overanalyzing what dangers are lying in wait. The result is a nifty, nihilistic sort of horror movie, one that reinforces the belief that you don’t need supernatural forces or existential threats to create true terror. The common man can just as easily be your enemy, even—or especially—one that walks and talks with a smile.
It’s too easy to let your guard down, to assume the best in people, and that leads to the darkest horrors of them all. Speak No Evil is not so much brilliant as it is bold enough to stay true to its intentions, to not flinch in the face of unmasking what it means to make the wrong decisions despite rational thinking, level-headed understanding, or even common decency. A movie with such a pessimistic perspective is doomed to alienate, but it’s also welcoming to see.
Crafted with careful, patient care, and nestling under your skin with brutal resolve, Speak No Evil can falter under a wobbly screenplay that can favor perhaps one too many irrational decisions in the interest of believablilty. Yet one could argue that these miscaluations only serve to make the movie more believable and to stress home the point that, often, our great failures come when we think we’ll get away with doing what we think is the right call. Playing with genre expectations in creative and effective ways, while also serving a morality tale that doesn’t balk from where its true intentions lie, Speak No Evil says a lot about how we view others, and what it has to say isn’t always kind or humane. But sometimes, in this case, that’s ultimately for the best.