Review by Sean Boelman
Festival midnight sections are generally most known for horror and camp, but every festival tends to have that one film that is more a twisted thriller than anything. The Danish movie Speak No Evil fills that niche this year, a simple but demented film that gets its message across in a brutally direct way.
The movie follows a Danish family who befriends a dutch family on vacation and later travels to their remote cabin for a seemingly idyllic getaway, only to discover that the people they are staying with might not be who they thought they were. It’s not a very original premise by any means, but the way director Christian Tafdrup executes it is shocking and effective.
Ultimately, much of the film is spent building up to the final act, which delivers on the violent catharsis that the Sundance trigger warning promises. Yet even though the first hour of the movie is extremely tame (especially for midnight section standards), there’s this palpable sense of tension about the whole thing.
The film is about as subtle as a jackhammer with its messaging, but it’s not too horribly distracting. The way in which writers Christian and Mads Tafdrup explore Danish-Dutch relations is quite interesting, and not a topic that is frequently explored in movies that make it to a global scale. On the other hand, the messages about human nature aren’t as intriguing.
Perhaps the thing that allows the Tafdrups’ script to work so well is that it gets us invested in the characters early on. The first thirty minutes trap the viewer with a false sense of security by playing like a hangout film before things start to seem a bit off. And when things start to go south, viewers will find their imaginations exaggerating things because of their previous notions.
Of course, great character work is nothing without a talented ensemble bringing the roles to life, and all four lead actors are exceptional. Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fredja van Huêt, and Karina Smulders all have tremendous chemistry with one another, but it is van Huêt who is likely to have the most lingering impact with his slyly sinister performance.
The movie is also absolutely gorgeous in a visual sense. There are a lot of really beautifully composed shots, even when there is some really horrifying brutality involved. This creates an interesting feeling of discomfort and builds that atmosphere of uneasiness which is so central to the film’s success.
The substance in Speak No Evil is minimal, and what it does have to say is said very clearly, but it’s a very well-crafted movie for what it is. In terms of festival midnight movies meant to be taken seriously, it ranks pretty highly.
Speak No Evil screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.