When a Danish family visits a Dutch family they’ve met on holiday, what are easily brushed aside as cultural differences charge the battery in the slow-burn horror that is Speak No Evil. The psychological and social horror that characterize this movie won’t be for everyone, but it is expertly executed. Think Get Out meets Cape Fear.
Rather than rely on jump scares and on following tropes, the director and co-writer of Speak No Evil, Christian Tafdrup, employs careful strategy and tactics that will haunt the viewer for long after the film ends. Playing on core fears that we are embarrassed to speak aloud and using our expectations both of culture and of genre films to build tension, Christian Tafdrup and his co-writer Mads Tafdrup direct the audience toward what we should expect, what we know is coming, and then withhold it from us. Their game is to hold off as long as possible and then to smash us over the head with the results. And they are successful. The Tafdrups use subtlety and audience anticipation to build tension throughout the film, and then they shock us in a truly horrific gut punch. And I’d be remiss not to mention the artful (in the most practically impactful way) scoring, sound design, and editing, all of which stand out as impressive. These contribute to the aims of the film in ways not to be overlooked.
It’s tough not to give away details that would do damage to the experience of an unknowing audience member, but what the pair offered in a Q&A after the film’s debut screening at Sundance this January is telling without being unhelpfully revelatory. Christian Tafdrup told audiences that he came up with the idea for his film when thinking about the times on holiday when those we meet and with whom we get along best offer to have us come for a visit in their home country some day. Tafdrup imagines a family accepting such an offer and asks: “Just how badly can this go for them?” In writing the screenplay, he took that question and paired it with a second, more internal fear: “What if I can’t protect my family?” Take those two questions and let their answers play out in a context in which the guest family has incentive to be gracious and friendly toward hosts who, when it appears that something nefarious is afoot, perhaps they misunderstand. And how far does the benefit of the doubt for a kind host with imperfect social graces extend? Speak No Evil offers one answer.
4 ½ out of 5 stars.