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SUNDANCE 2022 Midnight

Review: Speak No Evil

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- Danish director Christian Tafdrup proves that you should never talk to strangers – also as an adult

Review: Speak No Evil
l-r: Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev, Sidsel Siem Koch and Morten Burian in Speak No Evil

Danish helmer Christian Tafdrup may have brought a horror movie to Sundance this year, but despite securing a spot in the Midnight section, he seems more interested in the absurdities of social conventions than gore. And rightly so, as they are much scarier.

Speak No Evil [+see also:
trailer
interview: Christian Tafdrup
film profile
]
is a comedy of manners gone wrong, as a perfectly pleasant Danish couple (Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch) decides, rather hastily, to say hello to their old holiday buddies from the Netherlands (Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders) and spend a weekend together somewhere in the woods. It's the kind of awkward set-up that’s already very appealing: four people coming together, again, despite having precisely nothing in common, except perhaps for kids in a similar age bracket. Loads of wine and hot weather always result in such unusual pairings, but now, their holidays are long gone. And yet, despite feeling very uncomfortable, the Danes still go to stay with the Dutch family.

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Of course they do – almost anyone would. This observation alone, while arguably depressing, makes this little film a success. As noted by the likes of Kevin Williamson, horror films used to provide their audience with a delightful sense of superiority. There was something so satisfying about watching all those hapless dopes, insisting on checking out all sorts of odd noises, promising everyone they would be back and always roaming around badly lit basements. Here, no such luck. People do tend to be extremely dedicated to respecting their social duties, no matter what, only later admitting that their gut feeling has been correct all along – that’s just a fact. You ignore all the worrying signs because the alternative, appearing rude, is just too horrifying to consider.

As a film that’s supposed to bring on the scares, Speak No Evil might be a tad too subtle and too slow-burning, although forcing its viewers to wait also makes sense. Tafdrup is pretty much gaslighting his audience, making them wonder – just like this poor couple is – if they are just making it up and if every misunderstanding could be attributed to the language barrier or different parenting styles. Or rather, he would if it weren’t for the film’s giveaway soundtrack, introducing the creep factor right from the start, even though the images take a while to catch up.

Once they do, it’s loads of twisted fun. The ending here is positively disturbing, interesting and hard to shake off, mostly because one is still left to come up with their own explanations for what exactly went down, and why. But for the most part, it’s all about those small details, eating away at people and yet so easy to brush off, like having someone enter the bathroom when you are already in the shower or being served meat, repeatedly, even though you are a wannabe vegetarian. The question is, do you react, or do you just smile and wait it all out? Either way, if that’s what being polite gets you, maybe it’s time to finally drop the etiquette.

Speak No Evil was produced by Denmark’s Profile Pictures ApS and co-produced by Dutch outfit Oak Motion Pictures. TrustNordisk is in charge of its international sales, while its local distribution is handled by Nordisk Film Distribution and September Film Distribution Netherlands.

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