Don’t Say a Word (2001)
Dir. Gary Fleder
Written by: Anthony Peckham & Patrick Smith Kelley (from the novel by Andrew Klavan)
Starring: Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Sean Bean
I had to write my review of Don’t Say a Word almost immediately after screening the movie, because it is a truly unremarkable and unmemorable film. The movie is the type of paint-by-numbers studio fare that I typically avoid, but somehow this disc ended up in my collection. It isn’t really my movie, having gotten mixed into my DVDs at some point when, I assume, a friend let one of my roommates borrow it sometime. The case has sat on my shelf for over a decade, mixed in among other movies that I’ve loved and watched many times over the years, and I’ve never had the impulse to take it out of the case and watch it until this morning. I have to say that my reticence to watch Don’t Say a Word was probably wise, as it provided an entertaining enough, though thoroughly uninspired couple of hours. Don’t Say a Word isn’t a terrible movie, but its familiar plot has been spun out in better, more original ways more than once.
Don’t Say a Word opens in 1991, with an exciting bank robbery scene, in which a gang makes off with a rare $10 million dollar ruby. However, in the chaos of the aftermath of the robbery, two members of the gang are able to double cross their leader, Patrick (Bean), and make off with the precious jewel, leaving him holding a worthless bracelet. The film then jumps forward ten years, introducing Dr. Nathan Conrad, a child psychologist who has been asked to work with a disturbed teenage girl, Elisabeth (Murphy), who witnessed her father’s murder as a child. Meanwhile, Patrick and his gang are released from jail, and are hell bent on finding the stolen ruby. The gang set up shop in an apartment above Dr. Conrad’s apartment, and proceed to surveille him and his family, before abducting his daughter. Patrick contacts Dr. Conrad and informs him that he has little time to save his daughter’s life, and that the only way to do so is to extract a six digit number that Elisabeth has locked in her repressed memories. It is subsequently revealed that Elisabeth’s murdered father was the member of Patrick’s gang who double crossed him, and that he hid the ruby in Elisabeth’s favorite doll for safe keeping. While Dr. Conrad attempts to crack the safe that is Elisabeth’s mind, a police detective (Jennifer Esposito) is tracking Patrick in connection with a string of grisly murders. Their trails all dovetail at the film’s climax, which occurs in a pauper’s graveyard on Hart Island.
The film starts out promisingly enough. The opening heist scene is exciting, and though its rather conventionally blocked out and shot, it still provides an initial rush that propels the first quarter of the movie. However, when the film starts to downshift and introduce its psychological thriller components, it becomes a bogged down game of cat and mouse. Fleder tries to use dark settings-cemeteries, crumbling state-run mental hospitals-to give the film an eerie undercurrent, but these window dressings rarely serve to distract from the fact that what he’s presenting is largely a cookie cutter ransom film, with few points of specificity to set it aside from the rest of its ilk. The film takes very predictable courses to bringing Conrad and Patrick together for a confrontation, and hits on all the familiar tropes along the way. Even the film’s supposed twists, whether it be the fact that the kidnappers were in the apartment building all along or that Elisabeth’s murdered father was a member of Patrick’s gang, are easy to see coming a mile away. The film features a handful of action set pieces that should help to break up the monotony of its cardboard plot, but none of them are particularly memorable.
The performances are workmanlike throughout, with a pretty good cast having been assembled. No one is doing his or her best work in Don’t Say a Word, but the film doesn’t suffer from poor performances in any way. Douglas is fine as the distressed father, but his performance lacks any sort of immediacy. I felt that he was far more hell bent on getting to work in Falling Down than he ever was on rescuing his young daughter in this film. Bean is probably the star of the show, using his minimal screen time to great effect. He’s particularly effective as a chillingly calm and menacing voice over the phone, giving both Conrad and his wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), cold instruction.
I do think that the film is to be credited for featuring several strong performances by women and giving its female characters prominent roles. Aggie is bedridden for much of the film, suffering a broken leg in a skiing accident, but when she does get the opportunity to rise and get involved in the action, Janssen delivers ably. She has one of the film’s best fight scenes, viciously dispatching of one of the kidnappers who attempts to snuff her out. Jennifer Esposito does the best that she can with the little amount of screen time and exposition afforded to her character. She plays Detective Cassidy as a tough, no-nonsense cop, and even though her character is an obvious caricature, Detective Cassidy is presented in a more positive light than her male counterparts, who are shown to ineffective, lazy, or both. Finally, Brittany Murphy shines in the movie in a role that she was likely pigeonholed into. Though she spent much of her too short career being typecast in just these sorts of roles, women with psychological issues in crisis, she never failed to deliver compelling, nuanced performances. As might be expected, much of her work in Don’t Say a Word is nonverbal, and she builds a performance on the tics and physical compulsions that drive her character. The film doesn’t have the most progressive view of mental illness, but Murphy’s performance does a lot to soften its rough edges. Her gentleness and longing help to humanize her character and give the film what emotional depth it does have.
Overall, Don’t Say a Word isn’t a bad movie. It’s serviceable in all the ways that it should be, but it lacks any real dynamism, and it’s far too predictable to stand out in a crowded field of similar thrillers. In fact, it serves as a good reminder for me of why I tend to avoid these types of mainstream thrillers. They’re often so derivative that it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. The film’s cast does what they can to elevate the material, but the talented actors just aren’t given a great deal to work with. Fleder shows some flashes of compelling action filmmaking throughout, but rarely carries these over to the film as a whole, leaving the project feeling uninspired. This is probably the first unequivocally negative review that I’ve written so far for this project, and it likely isn’t a surprise that the first film that I’m reviewing that isn’t actually “mine,” in the sense that I didn’t purchase it or choose it to be a part of my collection. I was hoping that I would be pleasantly surprised by Don’t Say a Word, but there just isn’t enough there to make me desire a second viewing. If you’re in the mood for a psychological thriller, there are plenty of better choices.