Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil ★★★½

Whenever coming across strangers who want a moment of your time, it's natural to be polite and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes, they're part of a social organisation where they're looking for new members or donations, sometimes they're asking for something, like a few dollars to help with their financial situations, or sometimes they're on vacation and just want some company. Whenever they exchange niceties, it feels like an obligation to exchange some back in return, but now you're getting sucked into the conversation. And they're so kind and lovely that you can't help but stay. Leaving would feel rude, wouldn't it? Maybe those interactions will be one-time only or they continue occasionally and evolve into a friendship, and because you get well-acquainted with them, whenever they invite you to an event or their home, you're probably unsure if you'll be up to accept. But they seemed so enthusiastic about it that it's hard to say no, and so you may learn new things about this stranger you've met. Maybe good things or bad things. And if it's the latter, then it might be too late.

Speak No Evil is not a story about being careful who you meet and cross paths with. It's about what happens when a failure to assert boundaries and precautions allows passivity to go unchecked and leads us into dangerous situations. Of course, we want to be genuine and positive, and saying no or maybe arguing can feel disrespectful, even amidst the unpleasantness. But there's a way of being genuine and kind, BUT also asserting boundaries and recognising when something isn't right. Bad things happen to good people, and if you behave too good or nice, then there will be consequences to pay.

Even though Christian Tafdrup is not a fan of the horror genre, he has confidence over Speak No Evil's uncomfortable atmosphere. Every scene contributes to a sense of dread, where the camera observes its characters and the space they occupy with a sense of detachment. Something's wrong and the characters should speak up but they cannot for some reason. When some of those concerning behaviours are pointed out, they're explained with justifications and apologies. But what about those other weird things that happened before? It doesn't ease the unpleasant horror. It only gets worse, but it's captured with a brilliant hook, where the events create some compelling tension, and which are enhanced by Tafdrup's genre elements of dark comedy and social satire, gradually transitioning into a nightmarish sort of horror, and, finally, a horrifying exercise of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier-inspired nihilism.

Speak No Evil is a film that lets you have your early moments of comfort before taking them away and punishing you for having them. There is one scene that, triggered by a gut instinct, I knew was going to happen. And I didn't want that to be the case. So when it finally took place, I felt queasy and sick to my stomach, not because of the content but because of the pervasive, unrelenting hopelessness that has been in Speak No Evil from the first minute. What makes its storytelling only further hard-hitting is that these horrors are revolving around a nuclear family that just wanted to enjoy their vacation, and to see them get further and further into this situation until it's too late makes the outcome distressing, where Speak No Evil plays with the idea that, without taking the necessary measures, there is no control over what happens to your family and you can't protect them from what is about to take place.

Characters making dumb decisions will always be frustrating, but if it serves the story and their personalities well, they can be excused. While Speak No Evil manipulates that notion to an extent, it also reaches a point where its situations begin to feel contrived and unbelievably illogical, which makes the film frustrating for the wrong reasons. Every time a major red flag, it presents an opportunity for the characters to leave. The more red flags there are that they ignore, the more infuriating their reckless passivity gets and you're both left to scream and ask, "can people really be that stupid??" Because Tafdrup spends a bit too much time with the buildup in the first hour and not enough to let his characters make sense, the plot holes become increasingly difficult to ignore and work against the film's otherwise realistic visual style. By then, the audience will be left waiting a bit too long for the shocking payoff they're already expecting.

Speak No Evil's ending will either make or break the film, depending on your mileage. Some will see it as brilliant filmmaking or deem it a cruel waste of time. For me, it paid off with an unflinching display of evil, even if there's a sense of "that's it?"-ism. However, it doesn't make up for some of the unexplained motivations and symbolism, or its earlier frustrations, almost putting the film at risk of bordering on shock value. It delivers the message, nevertheless. And it's blunt, brutal and disturbingly effective. Only when I delve into Speak No Evil's intentions does it remind me of the interactions I've had with strangers, how passive I've been, and that at least a few of these occasions have either made me feel uncomfortable or in danger but unable to speak out in fear of judgment and repercussion. If Speak No Evil set out to make me change my way of thinking and behaving in social situations, it fulfilled its goal. It'll undeniably be one of the more divisive films of 2022, but in spite of its predictability, Speak No Evil is an impressive effort from Christian Tafdrup, and almost ambitious with its disturbing intentions. Truly unsettling in the way it dares to make us question our behaviours and take some terrifying risks, and most of them ultimately work.

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