Directed by: Christian Tafdrup || Produced by: Jacob Jarek
Screenplay by: Christian Tafdrup, Mads Tafdrup || Starring: Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev
Music by: Sune “Køter” Kølster || Cinematography: Erik Molberg Hansen || Edited by: Nicolaj Monberg || Country: Denmark, Netherlands || Language: English, Danish, Dutch
Running Time: 98 minutes
As much as I defend mainstream Hollywood movies against snobbish arthouse critics, I concede most Hollywood pictures, from dramatic, self-serious Oscar-bait to high-concept blockbusters, are — what’s the word? — dumber than your average film festival standout that achieved recognition organically rather than via the corporate marketing power of the Los Angeles studio system. I maintain a sense of reactionary suspicion to most any dramatic critical darling that appears to generate hype based on its subject-matter, themes, or artificial trendiness alone, but on an average per-film basis, most independently produced cinema are far more auteur-driven than their bigger budgeted Tinseltown counterparts, English-language or not, genre film or not.
Every now and then, however, a smaller indie drama untainted by the airbrushed, sellout stink of Hollywood manages to suck all on its own, or at the very least underwhelm yours truly relative to its underdog success and alleged transgressive qualities. A24 productions constitute a significant portion of those overblown independent films, though perhaps that’s due to how prolific that American studio is in general (it produces many, many effective movies of all genre stripes, year in and year out); what about overrated foreign productions, though?
Comparable to Netflix’s Red Dot, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (both 2021), and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) is Speak No Evil by writer-director Christian Tafdrup, which found its way to several “best of horror” lists for the year of 2022 thanks to its creepy, relatable premise: Two families, one Dutch, one Danish, meet by happenstance during an exotic vacation in Tuscany, Italy, one family later invites the other to stay at their home, but the invitees discover their hosts are not what they seem. To be more specific, this third feature directorial effort by Tafdrup (see also: Parents , A Terrible Woman ) explores how its point-of-view characters’ damn themselves to an early grave thanks to their passive nature and inability to defend themselves in any social context. Speak No Evil, as its title implies, is about the pitfalls of turning a blind eye to impropriety, which is a fine if not classical premise for a social satire and horror picture.
My issue with Speak No Evil is how recommending the movie requires one to ignore the final quarter of its story (recall High Tension ), particularly how unbelievable the actions of his main characters are in the film’s most crucial scenes. Male and female leads Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch, respectively, are so meek in physically defending themselves against their antagonists by the third act that the story’s violent conclusion feels frustrating and inexplicable instead of horrific or gutwrenching. The way Burian and Koch do nothing but either squeal or whimper when their families face mortal danger is implausible given any ordinary human understanding of the nuclear family, parental instincts, fight-or-flight mechanisms, etc., and dovetails with some of the laziest screenwriting I’ve seen in a feature film in some time. The way our main characters march toward their doom during the final twenty minutes despite having numerous opportunities to fight back or outsmart their modest opponents boggles the mind, and recalls the worst cliches of imbecilic horror characters unable to make obvious, logical decisions to save themselves.
With regards to direction beyond the asinine ending, Speak No Evil offers fine performances, creepy nighttime camerawork, and a few unnerving musical stings here and there, but nothing substantial to offset its clunky screenplay, which appears more interested in on-the-nose social commentary a la Black Mirror (2011-) than it does on constructing a sensible narrative. Perhaps the best parts of Speak No Evil involve the weird, bizarre, yet still realistic (again, minus the ending) chemistry between our two principal families, how their relationship transforms from gregarious bonding to creepy alienation in the space of an hour.
But besides those factors, the movie sucks. I applaud Christian Tafdrup for twisting standard film drama formula here as he’s done in his previous features (Parents involves an empty nester couple who inexplicably reverse age by 30 years, for example), but he kneecaps Speak No Evil’s story with an incoherent, lazy ending where his main characters have zero agency for no reason at all. The film appears so in love with its heady, cautionary themes about the dangers of not standing up for oneself that it forces its protagonists to act like no non-invalid human parent has ever acted in history. Even within an over-the-top fantasy world would lead actors’ Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch’s behavior scream lazy writing, but here in an otherwise straightforward, dramatic diegesis it is baffling to the point where I’m dumbfounded at the movie’s positive critical reception.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I must assume people’s general praise of Speak No Evil is an example of cinephile bias in favor of independent, “serious, artsy” foreign dramas, because contrived storytelling like this in any mainstream big studio horror picture would be rightfully mocked across dozens of snarky YouTube videos. The film is a perfect example of a movie’s concept overwhelming its narrative logic.
— However… its premise is inviting, and Tafdrup gets multiple good performances out of his small cast.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? Beta male? More like Omega male…