Speak No Evil
Profile Pictures, 2022
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Suspenseful and intense thrillers
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because you let me.”
Full disclosure: I rarely leave parties exactly when I’m ready to be gone. I have had a frequent problem throughout my youth cutting the cord and saying my goodbyes. I could blame this on any number of things: being indecisive, fear of missing out, or frankly, not having any other plans (insert shrug emoji). The main reason many struggle with this, and label themselves introverts because of it, is the need to be polite. Many of us squander way too much free time simply avoiding an uncomfortable exit from hosts that will likely either not be offended or will get over it quickly. Director Christian Tafdrup takes this basic level of common acquiescence and ratchets it up to a life-or-death situation in his new work, Speak No Evil.
At an enjoyable retreat, Bjørn (Morten Burian, Sons of Denmark) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch, Steppeulven), a couple from Denmark, meet Patrick and Karin, two casual acquaintances from Holland. Patrick (Fedja van Huêt, Character) and Karin (Karina Smulders, Bride Flight) send them a postcard inviting them to visit their countryside property for a few days. The invite feels aggressive, as they barely know the couple. Rather than decline, they offer a reluctant acceptance and head off. Bjørn and Louise bring along their daughter Agnes to join and spend time with Abel, Patrick and Karin’s son.
This unenthusiastic RSVP sets the tone for a series of uncomfortable occurrences between the two families over the course of the stay. Patrick and Karin impose several times by not respecting Louise’s dietary restrictions, invading their privacy, hiring a babysitter they’ve never met to watch the children, and being verbally abusive to Abel in front of them. Despite ample opportunities to leave and signs that something is off, Bjørn, Louise and Agnes stick around and get much more than they bargain for.
Speak No Evil’s genius is its ability to start its protagonists off with a relatable emotion, the unwillingness to offend. Patrick and Karin make such a gracious offer that many watching the movie would possibly consider it themselves. After all, some people are more trusting of strangers than others. The first act of the movie may come off as two couples with different lifestyles and different behavioral standards in the presence of others. For the viewer, it makes for some hilarious, albeit cringe worthy, scenes in the stylings of Meet the Parents. However, the visit quickly takes a turn for the dark as Bjørn and Louise express their displeasure more vocally and even attempt to leave. Patrick and Karin pull the very familiar tactics of manipulative people: play dumb, apologize and insincerely promise to change. In a word: gaslighting.
A prevalent criticism of movies like Speak No Evil is that the main characters’ passivity rises to a level too far-fetched to keep audiences engaged. At some point, we like to see the protagonists stand up for themselves to complete their character arcs. The reason behind Bjørn’s consistent buckling under becomes obvious as the film progresses: he is entranced by Patrick’s type A personality. Patrick has far more hutzpah, which Bjørn both admires and envies. This desire comes through in one of the few wholesome moments of the film, where they walk to an open field and take turns shouting into the void to release their tension. The power dynamic between the two, Patrick being more in charge than Bjørn, is not confined to money, work or social status, but rather difference in personality. Bjørn’s unspoken longing to be more like Patrick compromises his judgement, a situation very common in real life.
Speak No Evil could easily be compared to its contemporaries Get Out and Barbarian, movies with a general sense of dread where a character visits an ominous place and ignores signs that they should leave. Another common comparison floating around is the 2008 home invasion thriller The Strangers, particularly due to similar lines uttered between the protagonists and villains near the end of each movie.
Between reading, watching, and listening to podcasts regarding the film, it instead brought to mind for me another movie from the early 2010s: Compliance. An equally disturbing film, Compliance depicts the true story of a fast food worker who is accused of stealing and strip-searched by her co-workers at the instruction of someone impersonating a police officer over the phone. Both films call to question social etiquette and the ways that people will bend to either perceived authority or the incessant need to be polite. It is so ingrained in some of us that we get taken advantage of and even put in harm’s way. For moviegoers who are less trusting in their everyday lives, Compliance and Speak No Evil are just movies about people who are either cowards or complete idiots. For those of us who have been scammed, duped, pranked or even harmed, these two projects serve as a reminder to follow your intuition and protect yourself at all costs.