A few years ago, I made a decision to start eating pescatarian. Since that day, there have been a handful of occasions – usually at work events, or on a trip with friends – where a pescatarian or vegetarian option was not available to me. During those occasions, I’m sure I gave my host a polite, “It’s fine! Not a big deal,” before reluctantly digging into whatever was offered to me.
In “Speak No Evil,” a twisted psychological satire from Danish director Christian Tafdrup, a similar scene unravels. During a weekend trip to Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin’s (Karina Smulders) home in the Dutch countryside, Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) is confronted with a choice. Patrick offers her a taste of wild boar, which she initially politely refuses – like me, she doesn’t eat meat. But Patrick insists, prodding her until she lightly nibbles on the piece of meat he’s all but shoved into her mouth.
As Louise and her husband Bjørn’s (Morten Burian) weekend at Patrick and Karin’s home continues, this uncomfortable, but seemingly innocuous interaction grows more disturbing by the minute. “Speak No Evil” is often comical and always sadistic, ripping apart the very idea of social mores and deferential politeness with glee. One of the most subversive horror movies of the year, it’s remorseless barrage won’t be for everyone. Through a taut screenplay and direction, it simultaneously allows us to identify with that innate desire to not rock the boat, yet ferociously lay the blame for the horror that occurs almost entirely at the feet of the conciliatory party.
Patrick and Karin meet Louise and Bjørn on a Tuscan vacation, bonding over their similarly-aged children – Abel (Marius Damslev) and Agenes (Liva Forsberg) – and good wine. A few weeks after Bjørn and Louise have returned to Denmark, they receive an invitation to visit the other family at their home in the Netherlands. “It’s perhaps a bit too long to spend with some people we barely know,” Louise says, but the couple eventually decides to go. While there, they endure Patrick and Karin’s increasingly strange behavior with tight smiles and occasional outbursts, until the whole vacation goes belly up.
Satire is a tricky genre, too often ham-fisted or overly didactic, filmmakers trying to achieve the heights of “Dr. Strangelove” with each new outing, but with a pale comparison of that film’s humor or bite. In recent years, “Get Out” has become a template for satire of the horror persuasion, with few films able to find that critical balance of humor and terror. Tafdrup’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with his brother Mads Tafdrup, succeeds at both its satire and its horror. It runs in the wake of these films, but does not aspire to replicate them, carving out its own place in the genre and ratcheting up tension in such a way that almost divides the film in half. The first part is one of the funnier, cringeworthy endeavors you’ll see this year, while the second is so devastatingly demented, I found myself turning away from the screen.
The Tafdrups have a fine line to walk. They task themselves with creating interactions discomfiting enough to raise your hackles, but likely enough that by the time you start to bat an eye at Bjørn and Louise’s continued feigned politeness, it’s too late. The early interactions between the couples are so familiar – see previous pescatarian anecdote – that it’s difficult to not find some sort of kinship with the Danish couple, even as their staunch commitment to normalcy begins to seem preposterous. While the early interactions at first betray only a slight sense of discomfort, the camera views them almost judgmentally and with an ever-growing sense of dread. The camera pushes in on seemingly unremarkable images at a creeping snail’s space, and continuously follows characters and vehicles from behind, betraying a voyeuristic quality that seems inescapable, no matter how hard you try.
As the film goes on and the events at play become more sinister, the script begins to lean more on the actors, particularly Burian, whose performance as Bjørn holds the satire together. While Louise is perturbed by Patrick and Karin’s behavior from the moment the weekend begins, Bjørn often fixes his captors, particularly Patrick, with a stare mixed with awe and trepidation. As Patrick and Karin, van Hûet and Smulders play manipulation with a slippery, almost sensual appeal. As Bjørn, Burian latches onto that feral quality, almost viewing his captors with a sick sort of reverence – until their goal becomes clear, that is.
Before the weekend getaway, we see multiple shots of Bjørn and Louise going about their days with no diegetic sound to be heard, but rather a threatening orchestral score. Sune “Køter” Kølster’s music embodies dread through its pounding drums and shuddering melody, but rarely plays under overtly sinister events. In one shot, the camera holds on Bjørn sitting through his daughter’s recital, Louise serenely taking pictures next to him as the score growls with menace. Burian’s face sits just on the edge of apathy as he stares at the stage, his eyes wide and expressionless. He brings his glance down slightly, his countenance falling ever deeper into blankness, until the audience begins to clap and he lethargically slips into the role of dedicated dad.
Later during a conversation with Patrick, Bjørn voices his concerns about his seeming conformity. He loves his wife, he loves his daughter, but his voice is thick with tears as he wonders why he’s allowed himself to become someone who just goes through the motions. Viewing the film in its entirety, Bjørn’s concerns are filled with a pathetic sense of irony. But Burian and van Hûet’s interaction here is so intimate, their stares so intense, Patrick’s magnetic appeal to Bjørn becomes clear. When he watches Patrick drive home drunk and blast the radio at full-volume, or dirty dance with his wife without a care in the world who sees, it’s the only time Burian betrays a spark of life inside the man. If that performance doesn’t work, and we don’t buy Bjørn’s engrossment in the couple, the deranged heights and tragedy of the film’s climax don’t pack such a savage punch.