Sidsel Siem Koch as Louise and Morten Burian as Bjørn | Erik Molberg/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Speak No Evil ★★★★

Writer-director Christian Tafdrup presents Speak No Evil – a nightmarish exploration of a holiday friendship gone wrong in this provocative Danish feature that feels inspired by gut-churning works by auteurs including Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier.

Co-written by Tafdrup and his brother Mads, Speak No Evil introduces us to Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) holidaying in Tuscany with their daughter Agnes. The pair are instantly charmed by fellow holidaymakers Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), a charismatic Dutch couple who quickly extend an invite for their new friends to join them at their home over a weekend upon returning. Bjørn and Louise oblige yet something feels different about their host’s demeanour upon their reunion. The Danish couple find their limits tested by the increasingly abrasive behaviour of Patrick and Karin as their situation grows perilous.

During the film’s Sundance introduction, Christian Tafdrup shares that he is not a particularly big horror fan with this being his first dip into the genre. He shares that with Speak No Evil he set out to create something unpleasant that provoked a bold audience reaction. This is undoubtedly something the filmmaker achieves thanks to the film’s near unbearable tension and examination of the horrors that humans are capable off.

Taking a simple premise of a holiday friendship – most of which fizzle out upon each respective party’s return home – the writers examine the real potential for horror in the idea of relationships being a façade with these initially polite opportunities of light socialising being the route to a more disturbing type of interaction. The initial scenes of Speak No Evil spend time crafting the effortlessly charming appeal of Patrick – a doctor from the Netherlands – and his sociable wife Karin. A bond quickly forms between the two couples with Bjørn and Louise romanced by their new friends’ charm. These scenes are essential in juxtaposing the dark turn that the relationship will take when the Danish couple enter the very different domain of Patrick and Karin complete with its slow-burning behavioural changes.

Morten Burian as Bjørn | Erik Molberg/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Moments of unease are embedded into this initial Tuscan scenes such as a figure standing watching Bjørn and Louise in their holiday apartment hinting at the dangers which await them. Speak No Evil’s impressive use of its ominous booming score from composer Sune “Køter” Kølster also turns scenes of supposed normality into tense situations, with this powerful piece of orchestral music key in creating the brooding tone of Tafdrup’s feature.

As Bjørn and Louise enter the home of their previously charming holiday partners, Speak No Evil layers numerous small moments of discomfort into its narrative. A brief burst of rudeness about Little Mermaid mugs brought by the Danes and Patrick’s insistence that vegetarian Louise tries a piece of wild boar serve as pre-cursors to more horrific instances that will soon occur. Patrick and Karin’s growing unpleasantness and confrontational demeanour orchestrates numerous situations which provide increasing discomfort for their guests with Tafdrup crafting these with a claustrophobic unease. Director of Photography Erik Molberg Hansen creates a tight, clammy atmosphere in Patrick and Karin’s rural home with darkened lighting and tight quarters. Windows showing into Bjørn and Louise’s bedroom add a queasy voyeuristic touch also.

Speak No Evil meticulously builds-up its tense narrative aware that audiences will have greater insight into the protagonist’s danger than the characters themselves. As the escalating discomfort grows too much for Louise, the couple leave to a sense of sheer jubilant delight – but their return to reclaim Agnes’s forgotten toy rabbit takes us back to square one. Tafdrup toys with our emotions and nerves throughout the experience of Speak No Evil – taking our expectations and continually throwing them upside down as our hosts veer between normality and politeness to dangerously disconcerting.

A cat and mouse dynamic in the film’s closing act proceeds some white-knuckle brutality as more details are revealed about Patrick and Karin who toy with their guests. The filmmaker refuses to shy away from the inherent barbarism that some humans are capable of in the film’s devastating feel-bad final moments which linger with us long after the credits have stopped rolling. Particularly harrowing in these final moments is the agonising lack of fight put up by our protagonists in traumatic conclusion.

The film’s impressive ensemble present this oppressive nightmare of a weekend stay with a sense of grounded naturalism. Sidsel Siem Koch’s Louise is initially the most unsettled by her hosts, but soon finds herself manipulated to the point of acceptance, a reversal from Morten Burian’s initially more accepting Bjørn. Both actors capture the sense of helplessness experienced by the couple with a raw emotion, whilst Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders impeccably craft an unnerving façade of charm.

Speak No Evil is a points excruciating as Tafdrup gradually crafts a meticulous unpleasant tension as the hosts toy with their guests. Examining the veneer that humans can create to achieve emotional manipulation, Speak No Evil presents horror at its most provocative, worryingly human and downright horrifying.

Speak No Evil plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight programme. Find out more details here.