Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil ★★★½

The unconcealed ideological message of Speak No Evil can be summed up with just a slight paraphrasing of Homer Simpson’s koan about beer: unfettered masculinity is both the cause of, and solution to, all the world’s problems. The film places a pop-Nietszchean quandary at its center: is the Übermensch — the “real man” freed from all civilizing constraints — a monster or a savior? And, like so many of the masculinity-in-crisis horror films that have preceded it, the troubling answer it provides is “both.” 

Speak No Evil is best described as Ruben Östlund does New French Extremity. It’s the very definition of “slow-burn horror” in which excessive politeness inexorably leads an affluent family into a maelstrom of violence and brutality. Most of the blame for the family’s plight is laid at the feet of Bjørn, the feckless patriarch whose closest brush with heroism to this point has been his knack for recovering his daughter’s stuffed bunny rabbit. When the family accepts an invitation from the sinister Patrick and his wife to stay at their home in Holland for a long weekend, things go from comically awkward to unrelentingly horrific mostly because of Bjørn’s inability to act decisively. Near the very bleak ending of the film, Bjørn asks Patrick why he’s doing all these terrible things to them, and his laconic reply is damning: “Because you let me.” As Christian Tafdrup, the film’s director and co-writer explains

The theme of modern masculinity—or the lack of masculinity—has been present in three of my movies. It’s a take on the modern Scandinavian man who is very privileged and very “civilized” but has not been in contact with his inner primal self. Bjorn craves this darkness which exists in Patrick. I wanted to show what happens when someone who lives to society’s standards has this darkness suppressed.

Although Senator Josh Hawley’s very similar assessment of masculine decadence blames it on somewhat more specific causes — video games, online pornography, and most of all Lefty feminism — his conclusions are much the same: “The left wants to define traditional masculinity as toxic. They want to define the traditional masculine virtues, things like courage and independence and assertiveness, as a danger to society.” 

It feels a bit more surprising that this sort of petulant jeremiad about the emasculating effects of civilized society would come from Denmark — a culture which so many on the socialist side of the spectrum hold up as an exemplar of how to get civilization right. But it isn’t hard to discern some of these same anxieties fueling Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (among others). If we broaden the scope to include Scandinavia as a whole and add films like Borgman, The Dinner (based on a Dutch novel of the same name), and, really, all of Ruben Östlund’s films, we start to see a definite pattern emerging. 

Of course, these anti-civilizational strands have been present in American horror for quite some time, from The Purge franchise to Halloween Kills. Going back a few decades further, Seventies films like I Spit on Your Grave, Straw Dogs, and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Deliverance, all suggest that the only solution to a bad guy without moral constraints is a good guy without moral constraints. Even Jaws picks up right where Duel left off in presenting a hen-pecked husband who recovers his macho mojo by way of the time-honored male-bonding ritual of a monster hunt. 

While there’s something undeniably cathartic about these myths of recovered masculinity, in order for them to work, they require a deliberate dis-figuration of the social. In Speak No Evil, we’re not even supposed to ask “where are the police, the neighbors, the families and friends of all Patrick’s precious victims?” To conjure the proving ground of male heroism involves mounting a fantasy of a pre-civilizational state. And that fantasy presumes to have discovered the “truth” behind the artificial facades of polite society: that the only law that really matters is the law of the jungle, every man for himself. I’ve long maintained that the anti-civilizational bent of The Walking Dead — i.e., all human attempts to constrain our natural tendencies to barbarism are doomed to fail — is mostly responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

Block or Report

David liked these reviews