SPEAK NO EVIL is the English title for the Danish film Gæsterne (The Guests). It’s directed by Christian Tafdrup, an actor who was in The Killing and Borgen, and he co-wrote it with his brother Mads. I watched it on Shudder with only a vague awareness that it had been on some people’s lists of best movies in the banner horror year of 2022. I keep forgetting the title and questioning whether it’s actually SEE NO EVIL or HEAR NO EVIL, but no, it’s gotta be SPEAK, ‘cause there’s a kid in it with no tongue. Anyway, it was a successful viewing. If my stomach was coal it would’ve turned into diamonds.
If you’re not one for slow burns then approach with caution, because this one takes so long to seal the deal as an official horror film that I was honestly not sure if it ever would. But the truth is I didn’t think it needed to. To me the deeply uncomfortable social situations most of the running time is dedicated to are far more torturous than any cinematic maimings or killings. (Though I ordinarily prefer the latter.)
Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) are a Danish couple on a vacation in Tuscany with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). Bjørn doesn’t seem to be having a good time, doesn’t seem to fit in, until they run into this Dutch couple who seem really nice. Patrick (Fedja van Huêt, LOFT) and Karin (Karina Smulders) have a son of similar age named Abel (Marius Damslev). The two couples have dinner together one night, really hit it off and have fun. Patrick is so ridiculously complimentary about small things like Louise’s dedication to vegetarianism or Bjørn going out of his way to find the stuffed animal his daughter dropped that it makes them laugh uncomfortably, but he seems very sincere. They drink wine and talk about jobs and cultural differences and seem to find each other to be interesting people.
So after the vacation, when they’re back in their normal lives at home and get a letter inviting them to come visit Patrick and Karin in the Netherlands, they’re intrigued. At first they kind of laugh it off, ha ha, that would be crazy if we did that, that’s really nice of them, though. But we can tell Bjørn wants to do it. He’s afraid to push it at first, but I think he’s feeling horribly unfulfilled in life and marriage, and thinks this spontaneous adventure, and the company of these more outgoing friends, might fill some of that hole.
So they do it. It’s an eight hour drive to the middle of nowhere. Pretty nice house. But Louise is immediately uncomfortable, causing some tension with Bjørn. One of the first things that happens is Patrick brags about his delicious roast, carves off a piece and feeds it to Louise. She tries to politely decline but he keeps saying, “I insist.” Acting like it’s charming. Man, you know that motherfucker remembers she’s a vegetarian. It was the main thing he flattered her about. But he sure does act like he doesn’t remember. I felt this one deep. It had me in the bag already.
Then it becomes a gauntlet of button pushing, boundary testing, and social awkwardness. They keep having to stand there nervously as Patrick yells at his son, often supposedly on behalf of the guests. They go out for a night on the town but are pushed to leave their kid with some guy they’ve never met, and of course also to pay the bill. In between they witness their hosts making out and dirty dancing in a small restaurant. Patrick gets very drunk and drives them home while playing ear-splitting rock music. Then he comes into the bathroom and takes a long piss while Louise is taking a shower. I’m not even listing all the incidents, but the final straw, it seems, is when Louise finds Agnes sleeping next to Patrick, who’s naked. So they grab their shit and take off in the middle of the night, trying not to be heard.
And they’re headed home but Agnes realizes they left her stuffed bunny behind. Sorry, we’ll get another one, they say. But she won’t stop crying. She needs Ninus.
So, in a twist that’s as funny as it is gut-churning, they turn around and try to get the rabbit. Patrick and Karin stop them, act hurt and confused, spin it all as misunderstandings and cultural differences when Louise lists some of the things that made her uncomfortable (since Bjørn doesn’t know how to be confrontational). They apologize and try to make peace, promise to be better, and get them to stay. As you can imagine, they will regret it.
I get the sense that this self-torturing politeness is supposed to be a Danish thing, but it hit close to home for me. I hope I’d try harder to get out of some of those situations, but I can understand why they have such a hard time with it. I get it. To me Bjørn’s passivity is understandable; what’s pathetic is when you realize how much he wishes he was more like Patrick. Next thing you know they’re two men out in a desert doing primal screams at each other. You know how it is, being a man.
I read that Tafdrup set out to make “the most disturbing Danish film of all time,” and that the last 20 pages scared off numerous actors, but honestly I watched this a while back and I only vaguely recall the nightmarish ending. What I remember vividly is the more normal stuff, like sympathizing with Louise as she realizes oh fuck we’re stuck here all week.
Most disturbing Danish film of all time or not, SPEAK NO EVIL earned Robert nominations (the Danish Film Academy equivalent of Oscars) for best film, director, original screenplay, actress, actor, supporting actor, editing, production design, make up, sound, and score, but it didn’t win any. HOLY SPIDER pretty much swept.
I’m neither judging or endorsing, but I guess Blumhouse has already made an American remake, written and directed by James Watkins (EDEN LAKE, THE WOMAN IN BLACK). Bjørn and Louise are now Ben and Louise, played by Scoot McNairy and Mackenzie Davis. James McAvoy is in it, so he’s presumably playing the Patrick equivalent. I’m hoping it will be the most disturbing American remake of a Danish film of all time.
My recommendation is for couples to invite other couples they don’t know very well but who definitely would never watch a movie like SPEAK NO EVIL to come over and watch SPEAK NO EVIL. Enjoy.