One of the more intriguing ‘horror’ films in this year’s Sundance program comes from Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup. It’s “Speak No Evil”, a smart but unsettling chiller but not in the traditional sense. In fact, the film didn’t start out as a horror movie. It was originally conceived as a psychological drama centered around a fairly simple idea. But as that idea grew, the movie took a new shape and Tafdrup begin utilizing horror elements in some shrewdly original ways.
Co-written by Taldrup and his brother Mads, “Speak No Evil” starts tame before festering into something unthinkably savage and deeply disturbing. But it’s the cinematic space in between that makes the film more than just a genre exercise in audience cruelty. With a surgical cunning, Taldrup cuts into themes of human nature, manhood, and social norms. But it’s the film’s bigger more ambiguous meaning that ultimately makes this such a terrifying experience.
The film opens with a first-person view of a car driving down a dirt road at night. The drone of composer Sune Kolst’s haunting orchestral score soaks the scene in dread. But in a flash the camera suddenly switches to a sun-soaked swimming pool where the sounds of happy chatter, splashing water, and kid’s laughter fills the air. It’s not the only time Tafdrup will lay eerie ominous music over a seemingly innocuous scene.
The pool we learn is at a resort in Tuscany which is where we meet a vacationing Danish family, Bjorn (Morten Burian), his wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). While there, they hit it off with a Dutch family – an outgoing doctor named Patrick (Fedja van Huet), his good-natured wife Karin (Karina Smulders), and their unusually quiet son Abel (Marius Damslev). The two families have lunch where we hear that familiar throwaway line from Karin, “Well you should come visit us sometimes.”
The story jumps ahead in time with Bjorn and his family back home in Denmark. One evening they’re surprised by a letter from Patrick and Karin inviting them to come to Holland for the weekend. After some lighthearted debate, Bjorn and Louise decide to go, with Louise even uttering those ill-fated words “What’s the worst that can happen?”
The trio leaves Denmark and heads for the Dutch countryside. When they finally arrive at the address they don’t find the kind of house you would expect a doctor to live it. Instead it’s a dated two-story wood-framed place in the middle of nowhere. And there you have the first warning sign out of many to come. While things feel a little weird at first, the two families begin reconnecting much like they did in Tuscany. But over time Peter and Karin’s behavior gets stranger and more uncomfortable. Soon the nice weekend getaway with “friends” turns into a horrifying nightmare.
I’ll leave the rest for you to discover but be warned, “Speak No Evil” takes some shockingly depraved turns, and the final 30 minutes are as unsettling as anything you’ll see on screen this year. And by that I don’t mean that’s it’s gory and gross. I’m talking about the kind of brutal unpleasantness that you might find in certain Michael Haneke films. It will rattle you to your core.
Following its recent premiere at Sundance, “Speak No Evil” was quickly gobbled up by Shudder for distribution. So those of you who are interested (and gutsy enough), won’t have long to wait. To be honest, it’s not a movie I’m completely comfortable with recommending. Not because of poor quality (Tafdrup proves to be much too good of a filmmaker for that). But many will find it to be genuinely troublesome. Be that as it may, the sheer craft and control Tafdrup shows is top-notch, and I was glued to the screen throughout. I was thoroughly invested in the plight of this Danish family who were seduced by evil’s charms and then walked right into its trap.