The English title of Christian Tafdrup’s third feature initially reads as a strategy to draw horror fans, a pleading form of genre assurance that the film’s anodyne original Danish title, Gæsterne, or The Guests, cannot offer. By the time we arrive at the film’s grave denouement, however, it has become clear how apt this ostensible market-driven compromise is: the evil that undergirds Tafdrup’s narrative is, indeed, never uttered, while the failure of language as a means of communication, clarification, or salvation is an essential component of virtually every scene. There’s plenty of dialogue in Speak No Evil, much of it clever and some of it hilarious, but nearly every word is a diversion from the film’s oblique destination.
Two families meet while vacationing in Italy. Bjørn (Morten Burian), Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are from Denmark; Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and their tight-lipped son Abel (Marius Damslev) are from the Netherlands. They first converse—in English, the lingua franca of Scandinavia—in a village street and wind up going to dinner together. Bjørn and Louise are reserved but easygoing. Karin is amiable but generally cedes the floor to Patrick, who is aggressively ingratiating and imposingly earnest. He offers both Bjørn and Louise weirdly random compliments. He claims to be a doctor and associate of Doctors Without Borders. Louise never comes across as entirely convinced, but Bjørn is sheepishly smitten by the outgoing Patrick. At one point, Louise, in one of countless pleasantries, posits that Danes and the Dutch have much in common and everyone seems to agree. Yet these families appear to have almost nothing in common, save the ever-resilient bourgeois habit of being convivial to others of your race, class, and regional identity.
Some months after the Italian vacation, the Danes get a postcard from the Dutch inviting them for a visit. As before, Louise is dubious, while Bjørn suggests it might be fun, and soon they’re making an eight-hour car-and-ferry journey across the North Sea and deep into the Netherlands, where their hosts reside in a house tucked away in the woods. Here, the gulf that exists between the families’ sensibilities becomes more painfully apparent. Patrick gets pushier, his interaction with Abel raises eyebrows, and a drunken double-date night yields a series of abuses that the Dutch dismiss as misunderstandings. Still, the Danes stay. Or rather, they go and come back. The situation is at once absurd and completely plausible. Bjørn needs something from Patrick: something he seems unable to articulate, and something to do with what he regards as Patrick’s “wild energy.”
If all this strikes you as more of a cringe-comedy of manners than a horror film, you’re right on track. Building on the fraught domestic dynamics of his prior features, Tafdrup displays formidable comic chops in the staging of the families’ dogged determination to uphold the social contract. So much here is seriously funny: Patrick getting worked up over the global disrespect for Dutch cheese, or his eagerness to play a beloved Dutch song for Bjørn called, forebodingly, “It Never Ends.” The film’s horror touches, meanwhile, are more subtle: the way Bjørn’s reflection gets distorted in windows; the unnerving dissonance between Sune Kølster’s doomy music and the relatively banal scenes it underscores. This carefully cultivated genre confusion suggests myriad ways in which these genres are bound together: deep discomfort and deathly fear, laughter and terror, have a lot more in common than, well, Danes and Dutchmen.
And then we come to the end, which crashes down like an anvil. Tafdrup performs a tonal flip that likens it to Kill List—with a facile explanatory one-liner akin to something out of Funny Games. I’ll spoil neither the depths of distress Speak No Evil asks us to endure nor the one notable detail that tips us off, except to say that, to roll with the comparisons, it lands a little like Hereditary, in that it seems to allude to some obscure, baroque mythology that’s left unexplained, no doubt for the better. Most of Speak No Evil is so psychologically incisive, so attuned to subtleties of culture and codependency and the perils of cordiality, that it’s jarring, for better or worse, when its closing scenes hurl us into a hellscape governed by a pretty abstract idea of evil. Those final moments of unadulterated horror are audaciously dark, yet the relatively genteel scenes that precede them ultimately provide the more substantial chills.
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