Chivalry is deadly in this Danish slow-burn horror.
Horror often leaves us unbearably frustrated with the protagonists, wishing we could yell at them through the screen for going into the basement instead of making a run for it out the front door. The newly released Danish horror film Speak No Evil takes this horror trope and applies it to a very common human fear: confrontation. Director Christian Tafdrup, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Mads Tafdrup, asks us why we’re willing to jump through hoops to avoid an awkward conversation. The film follows married couple Bjorn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), and their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) as they spend a weekend at the home of a couple they barely know, spurred to say yes so as not to appear impolite. Drawing an eye-opening critique of why we’re so often willing to ignore mistreatment to avoid conflict, Tafdrup’s film reveals how this can lead to deadly consequences.
Before they arrive at the home of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), the film begins by showing us how they first met the couple on vacation in Tuscany. This vacation plants the early seeds of what will grow into the film’s driving dynamic, revealing early red flags in the couple’s behavior and Bjorn’s inclination to ignore these warning signs. In their first meeting, Patrick approaches Bjorn and Louise lounging by the pool while their daughter swims and asks if he can take their third chair. The camera pans to the chair covered in their things and the annoyance on Bjorn’s face; however, Bjorn quickly obliges him.
When they receive the postcard inviting them to stay with Patrick and Karin, Bjorn tries to convince Louise to say yes because it would be rude to decline, ironically asking what’s the worst that could happen. These small instances foreshadow the battle that will come, primarily within Bjorn, between standing up for yourself and not wanting to appear rude.
This is a common internal battle we all face, but the film examines it through a heightened and intense situation, forcing us to ask ourselves at what point enough is enough and when confrontation is a necessary risk. Upon their arrival at the home, things are immediately uneasy. Patrick prompts Louise to take a bite of meat, a callback to an early scene in Tuscany when Louise told them she’s a vegetarian. Louise laughs awkwardly, and Bjorn quietly murmurs she could just take a small taste, so she does. It’s a moment that urges the viewer to yell at the screen and tell Louise to hold her ground or for Bjorn to remind them she’s a vegetarian. But both she and Bjorn’s discomfort is evident, making their decisions at first both understandable and recognizable. They, like many of us, are so uncomfortable at the thought of speaking up that they’d rather make a sacrifice. It’s easier to play nice and avoid conflict, but it can also be an inherently dangerous risk.
The Costs of Playing Nice
The film also illuminates the varying thresholds humans have before deciding to put our foot down and confront someone. Louise quickly realizes that the risk of staying is far more dangerous than the risk of a confrontation or appearing rude by leaving. Patrick drives them while drunk and ignores Louise’s pleads to turn the music down, and she wakes up to find Agnes lying in the couple’s bed next to Patrick sleeping naked. When she tells Bjorn she thinks they should leave, he brushes it off, saying she’ll survive a measly day and a half longer. As Louise begins to fight back when the couple acts strangely, you can viscerally feel Bjorn shrinking into himself and wishing he could disappear. His body language communicates a relatable feeling of wanting to dissociate when a situation feels so unbearably awkward. His refusal to confront them is frustrating and angering because we, as viewers, know this is a horror film that will not end well. This knowledge allows us to clearly see the absurdity of Bjorn’s unwillingness to appear rude.
For Bjorn, confrontation is near impossible until it’s too late. Even when he does begin to fight back, there is a stark contrast in his and Louise’s approaches. While Louise is firm and rightfully angry, Bjorn is unsure and hesitant in his attempts to confront them. When they try to leave only to be caught sneaking back in to retrieve Agnes’ stuffed animal, Bjorn fumbles through his words, saying they left because the bed is too uncomfortable and small. He sheepishly looks to Louise for help, and she does what he couldn’t, explaining every strange occurrence and why it has made them upset and uncomfortable. Louise sees them for who they are, unclouded by the self-consciousness Bjorn is plagued by. In a climactic and tense scene after they decide to stay, Patrick screams at his son Abel (Marius Damslev) while he and Agnes are performing a dance routine. Louise finds the courage to pull Agnes into her arms and tell Patrick to stop, while Bjorn urges her to let Agnes perform with Abel once more to defuse the tension.
Bjorn’s untenable need to be accepted and agreeable is what incites and furthers the danger they find themselves in. Bjorn does not finally break and realize they have to go until he walks into a room full of blatant evidence of their evil intentions, but by this point, it is far too late. In their pivotal attempt to escape, Agnes realizes she left her stuffed bunny and begins to cry and plead for them to go back and retrieve it. Louise stands firm and sternly refuses, but Bjorn caves into her cries, turning the car around because he can’t bear to see his daughter upset. It’s classic pushover behavior and unbearably frustrating when the stakes are so high and their lives are hanging in the balance. Avoiding a conflict with his daughter and going back to the home will inevitably result in far worse consequences.
During the film’s horrific conclusion, a musical callback reminds us how Bjorn’s fear of confrontation led them to this point. An eerie operatic score plays, one we heard at the beginning of the film when Bjorn notices Patrick staring at him for the first time and brushed it off. As the ethereal notes of the song play into the credits, it forces us to reckon with each fatal decision Bjorn made because of his wish to appease others. In the film’s final moments, Bjorn asks Patrick why he is doing this to them, and Patrick responds, “Because you let me,” a simple statement that chillingly illuminates the tragedy of the situation. There is a fine and tricky balance between being a pushover and being polite that is difficult to navigate. For some like Bjorn, it can feel impossible to toe that line or dare cross it.
Tafdrup finds the horror in a frustrating internal dilemma, revealing how it is often a disservice to ourselves and others to ignore mistreatment and signs of danger. While acknowledging the inherent difficulty that comes with speaking up, Speak No Evil challenges us to care less about the implications of appearing impolite.