Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil ★★★★½

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie work so hard to be hateable. It tricks us for feeling moments of hope, mocks us for yelling at the screen, and punishes us for sticking around long enough to learn how it all burns down. A significant departure from genre standards that refuses to be explicit and titillating in its horror, but instead chooses to explore slow-burn emotional harm over physical harm…that is, until its shocking, messed up ending. 

FUNNY GAMES is an easy comparison but it’s not exactly accurate. This is reverse FUNNY GAMES with a series of red flags the characters not only accommodate, but embrace again and again in the hope of being civilized and polite. 

In Haneke’s film, the cat is let out of the bag early and makes us fully aware of the conspicuous evil within the first twenty minutes. His villains are demonstrably villains. His victims are demonstrably victims. What we’re dealing with here is a very different beast, one that stretches and stretches and stretches the conceit to its absolute breaking point, but not before teasing the idea, for the longest freaking time imaginable, that nothing wrong has actually taken place. 

Or has it? 

Sure, there are some weird, unpleasant characters who are awkward and passive aggressive, but we can always rationalize their behavior and second guess their intentions, chalking it up to social faux pas but never pure, insidious evil. 

We sense something is off, but we’re never able to articulate it. Never able to “speak” it. We feel it in our bones, but we can never justify it. Without the ability to speak truth to evil, this holiday joy ride teeming with social blunders and micro-aggressions is the sort of normal thing to expect when evil looks like a smile and grips like a handshake.

Haneke’s victims were powerless to escape. The victims in this film not only escape multiple times, but voluntarily return themselves to the same crushing game of manipulation again and again, and as demented as it sounds, we largely understand why they do. They simply accept a number of bizarre annoyances, either out of politeness or embarrassment, and handle it like civilized people despite how progressively unhinged things get. And here’s the kicker — a lot of people are gonna absolutely haaaaaate this film because of its sheer implausibility, but that implausibility speaks directly to the film’s commentary on people’s willingness to accommodate themselves to the banality of evil. 

We passively accept what makes us uncomfortable because we don’t want to appear like lunatics, blow things out of proportion, be uncivilized, or call a spade a spade. For as dumb as these characters are, that judgment is easy to make sitting in the comfort of my home, not dealing with the way unspoken oppression poisons by degrees. I lost my shit multiple times watching them make the choices they do, but that’s just it. This cunningly queasy horrorshow depicts the lengths people will go to be gaslit, to maintain politeness in the face of unpleasantry, to rationalize evil as a nuanced quirk rather than the very definition of evil itself. 

In the end, we are no better or smarter than these characters. We get what we deserve for sticking around long enough to witness its profoundly ugly, shocking, nauseating climax. 

Like FUNNY GAMES, we had plenty of chances to turn it off and watch something else play at Sundance, but we wanted to “feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible,” says the director. We wanted to be gaslit by its psychological mind games and feel-bad emotional violence. Like THE VANISHING, our insatiable desire to know what happens next forces us into the dragon’s lair, and from there the dragon can do what it will. It confirms Haneke’s thesis but from a different angle: “Anyone who leaves the cinema [leaves the vacation home] doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.” Why would the filmmaker conclude on such a bleak note of von Trier-inspired finality? His answer: “Because you let me.” I mean no hyperbole when I say this, but this is the best horror film I’ve ever seen at Sundance and easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in decades, and I can’t wait for you all to absolutely hate it. 

Watched at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival 

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