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Sundance Review: “Speak No Evil” Is Horror by Way of Haneke

Written by: Hannah Tran | January 28th, 2022

Film poster: “Speak No Evil”

Speak No Evil (Christian Tafdrup, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.

There aren’t many horror movies where the main characters could, at any point, get in a car and drive away from whatever’s threatening them. Speak No Evil, which centers around a Danish family who are invited to stay at the home of a Dutch family they met while on a previous vacation, is certainly the first I’ve seen. Directed by Christian Tafdrup (A Horrible Woman), himself Danish, this film plays out like a comedy of manners, except without any comedy. Deconstructing societal norms within interpersonal relationships, Speak No Evil is a visually stunning allegory about the dangers of prioritizing politeness over personal boundaries.

The basis of Speak No Evil’s success is its intelligent, concise screenplay that was written by Tafdrup and his brother, Mads. The structure of how its questions unfold and how they are answered is executed with great patience. The writing trusts the viewer to pay attention to the dissonance between what the characters say, what they do, and what is happening on screen. We learn information and question information along with the characters. This makes them extremely sympathetic. Nevertheless, it does feel like the perspective switches back and forth between the two Danish parents to the point that it’s slightly unfocused.

l-r: Morten Burian, Liva Forsberg and Sidsel Siem Koch in SPEAK NO EVIL, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Erik Molberg.

However, the captivating characters and pointed dialogue are brought to life by an outstanding cast. Even when their character’s actions are frustrating, leads Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch make their emotions and reactions identifiable. Fedja van Huêt as the Dutch patriarch maintains a casual friendliness and covert maliciousness that make any moment of violence feel extreme. Huêt is in total control of his tone, and his superficial cluelessness in regard to his character’s own actions is appropriately maddening.

While I often have issues with the concept of “elevated horror,” the strength of the screenplay disputes any accusations of pretentiousness that similar movies have faced. Speak No Evil is a horror film as much as it is a family-drama, and its main thrills feel more comparable to Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Funny Games films than anything else. The focus on the breakdown of the family structure, the construct of manners, and importance of communication draw obvious comparisons. The specific focus, likewise, makes it feel like a horror for the modern age.

l-r: Fedja van Huêt and Morten Burian in SPEAK NO EVIL, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Erik Molberg.

The unique blend of genres within it makes Speak No Evil a highly meaningful and distinct work. Beyond the lush cinematography, effects, and production design, the story feels both relevant and timeless. Much like the dark forces within it, it has a lot to unpack beneath the surface.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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