We've all heard of “cringe comedy.” Speak No Evil is the first movie I can think of that's “cringe horror.” The movie keeps you squirming for the better part of an hour with its uncomfortable character interactions, then makes a hard detour into full-on terror during the last 30 minutes. Although it delivers chills, director Christian Tafdrup has something to say about politeness in society, specifically how looking to avoid discomfort with other people can lead to very bad things.
Danish couple Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are on holiday in Tuscany with young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). They become friendly with a Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karen (Karina Smulders). Their little boy, Abel (Marius Damslev), has a bizarre speech condition. A short time after returning home, Bjørn and Louise receive a letter. Patrick and Karen have invited them to come for an extended weekend visit. Despite being relative strangers, it seems like a lot of fun, so they accept.
No sooner do they arrive than awkward things begin occurring. Patrick claims to be a doctor, yet the home does not even remotely indicate wealth. Patrick and Karen keep serving meat for meals, despite knowing Louise is a vegetarian. A trip out for dinner means unexpectedly leaving Agnes with an unfamiliar babysitter. That's just the start of it. Afraid to be rude or directly confront the matter, Bjørn and Louise try to sneak out early in the morning, only to be guilt-tripped into returning when their hosts realize what's happening. It's a key moment in Speak No Evil, because we correctly sense they're blowing their last chance to escape whatever's coming.
The movie expertly creates unease from the premise. Even better, it continually finds new layers of discomfort to add. We get an engrossing portrait of two people who refuse to stand up for themselves (or get away) because being perceived as impolite is unthinkable. While not a traditional horror concept, watching the characters endure increasingly awkward scenarios in the name of civility is terrifying in its own way. You start to ask yourself how many times you've tried to power through a bad situation simply to circumvent the possibility of appearing boorish.
Speak No Evil ventures to a place you aren't likely to anticipate in its third act. One scene in particular may leave some viewers outraged by where it goes and what it shows. Others will be baffled not by what Bjørn and Louise do in the wake of that moment, but by what they don't do. The story has to go to these places, though, to make its point. Ignoring the little voice in the back of your head that says “something isn't right here” is dangerous. Subjecting yourself to encounters that fundamentally feel wrong comes with a risk. Refusing to stand up for yourself, especially when you know you should, can be catastrophic.
With excellent performances from the entire cast, Speak No Evil drives home that theme in a manner that leaves you shaken. It's a take-no-prisoners horror film that's scary because you can almost certainly relate to it.
out of four
Speak No Evil is unrated, but contains violence, adult language, and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.