Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil sets up the kind of ostensibly benign social situation that comes loaded with all sorts of intriguing dramatic possibilities. At the tail end of their vacation in Italy, a Danish couple, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), hit it off with a Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). Not long after they return home, Bjørn and Louise receive a letter from their new acquaintances, inviting them to come for a weekend stay at their home in the Dutch countryside. Despite some initial hesitation over the fact that they barely know these people, Bjørn and Louise accept, partly fearing that it would be rude not to. And as one of their Danish friends asks rhetorically when discussing the matter, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Since Speak No Evil is a horror film, at least as indicated by the ominous music over the opening frames, it’s apparent as soon as those words are uttered that the worst will indeed happen. Despite their overwhelming generosity (or maybe because of it), there’s something faintly off about Patrick and Karin, a suspicion that only increases once Bjørn, Louise, and their preteen daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg), arrive at their shabby rural abode. Patrick and Karin seem almost too happy to have guests, and as the weekend progresses, they display a sense of familiarity that slowly unsettles Bjørn and Louise. Meanwhile, the Dutch couple’s young son, Abel (Marius Damslev), who’s afflicted with a condition that caused him to be born without a tongue, is given to crying fits that are casually dismissed by his parents.
For a good stretch, Speak No Evil plays as queasy satire of conditioned interpersonal behavior that a filmmaker like Ruben Östlund might stage, while walking a tightrope of suspense over whether anything sinister is actually at play here. After all, beyond being more rambunctious and free-spirited than our more conservative protagonists, Patrick and Karina aren’t necessarily doing anything overtly offensive. But whenever the weekend’s activities seem to be settling into a pleasant groove, a grain of doubt is tantalizingly planted in Bjørn and Louise’s minds, from a small lie being exposed to an uncanny moment where Patrick offers to treat his guests to dinner at a nearby restaurant but then subtly guilts Bjørn into picking up the check.
It’s just after this point that Speak No Evil begins to conjure a psychosocial terror reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, in this case arising from Bjørn and Louise finding themselves unable to extract themselves from their temporary lodgings. Rather than being explicitly intimidated by Patrick and Karin into staying, though, Bjørn and Louise are paralyzed by their own duty to “politeness” into remaining in a situation that feels increasingly amiss. This also creates small fissures between the couple, with Bjørn initially being more open to Patrick and Karin’s quirks and overblown compliments.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Speak No Evil sheds its seductive aura of ambiguity too early with a grim and not especially unexpected reveal that primes us for the much more conventional horrors that are in store for our protagonists. Bjørn finally does rise to action in this moment, but the hasty escape attempt that he initiates quickly goes off the rails due to an unconvincing abundance of remarkably poor decision-making on both his and Louise’s part. The contrived series of actions that clutter the film’s final stretch feel less like a natural result of the couple’s almost debilitating willingness to please than a familiar ploy for cheap suspense.
Near the end of the film, when Bjørn asks him for the rationale behind his malevolent actions, Patrick responds, “Because you let us.” And while it’s reasonable to assume that Bjørn and Louise may have eventually fallen into their hosts’ trap through the slippery slope of consciously ignoring the warning signs, Tafdrup isn’t willing to let that play out in an especially nervy manner. Speak No Evil’s concluding moments are ghastly, but by the time it gets there, it only cares to prod its protagonists like cattle for the sake of cheap thrills.