Don’t Say a Word

| October 7, 2001

A talented adolescent and child psychiatrist, Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas), is pulled reluctantly into a case involving a catatonic woman, Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy, now more than ever looking like a better-fed Ally McBeal and recognizable from her roles in Summer Catch, Riding In Cars With Boys and Girl Interrupted). In just his initial visit, Conrad realizes that Elisabeth is faking and after reviewing her file, rapidly comes to the conclusion that she is an excellent mimic of mental illness as a way to protect herself. Protect herself from what is that the question that soon gets answered.
Elisabeth is initially distrustful of Dr. Conrad, and not without good reason, ominously pronouncing that he’s only there because “[he] want[s] what they want.” And that she’ll never tell. The girl has a secret, but if you’ve seen any trailer or ad for the film, you already know that.
The scenes in the psychiatric hospital are genuinely creepy, washed out in their fluorescent-like green light and steeped in a grime only associated with old institutions. It’s hard to imagine much in the way of therapeutic benefit going on in such a setting. And Conrad works his magic in a strange blend of concern for his patient and selfish motivations.
For within hours, Conrad learns just who “they” are: a small gang of violent thieves and kidnappers lead by Patrick Koster, played by British actor Sean Bean (Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, the Sharpe series of TV movies, Black Beauty, Patriot Games, Ronin, Caravaggio). Faster than you can sew up a doll, Dr. Conrad’s precociously charming daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak who has appeared in Riding In Cars With Boys, The Affair Of The Necklace, The Patriot, The Cider House Rules), has been kidnapped. The ransom? As all the trailers have told you, a six-digit number locked away in Elisabeth’s mind.
Taking place from Thanksgiving eve through Thanksgiving night, Don’t Say A Word seems a timely release if somewhat uninspired. The film is a competent though somewhat remote combination of various film subgenres: the kidnapping film, the double-cross film (actually, there are several double-crosses), the child-in-peril film, the insane-person-has-a-secret film, the nuclear family-in-peril film, and so forth.
The remoteness owes in part to the film’s visual style, which ranges from the monochromatic “prologue” (ah, television has pretty much ruined the ability of a film to just start — rather now they have to have “teasers” even though we don’t have remote controls in the movie theater and so aren’t about to switch channels) to the cool color palette of the “present day.” The only vibrant colors occur in Elisabeth’s flashbacks (another crutch in too many films) which still come off as muted by virtue of their exceptional graininess. All of this makes the film reminiscent of a music video that weaves several visual styles together. What’s supposed to hold all of these visual styles together is the story.
And overall, the story is intriguing and suspenseful. Even the nature of the six-digit number is a nice surprise. Based on a 1993 novel by Andrew Klavan (a.k.a. Keith Peterson and author of the novel True Crime as well as the screenplay for 1990’s A Shock To The System), the script has been fashioned by Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly (Kelly wrote 1998’s A Perfect Murder) who, along with Kiss The Girls’ director, Gary Fleder (also at the helm of Imposter, and Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead) keep the film moving along at a brisk pace. Perhaps too brisk.
Having not read the novel, it’s hard for me to know if the gaps in logic are at the script level or at the book level. At whichever level, they seem the result of compressing a larger time frame into a smaller one, for the entire film takes place in 24 hours. It’s a stretch, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that a great psychiatrist could make a substantial breakthrough with a patient he’s never met before in one day and generate enough trust for her to tell him the secret that is driving the entire story.
But I do find it hard to believe that the Conrads’ apartment has been riddled with cameras (particularly in their bedroom) when Conrad’s wife is bedridden and never leaves the room. Particularly since these cameras and the surveillance station in a neighboring apartment have apparently been set up in less than one day. These only make sense in keeping the story moving so quickly that nothing (including reality) can intrude upon it.
Also, it’s not explained satisfactorily why the kidnappers leave a trail of bodies that conveniently allow for Detective Sandra Cassidy to find Conrad and Elisabeth. Played by Jennifer Esposito of Dracula 2000, Summer Of Sam and Kiss Me Guido, Detective Cassidy is the most interesting character here, but she’s stuck in a small undeveloped — though vital — role.
If there’s anything that would make this story stand out, it’s that it’s filled with capable women. For once, the female detective is good. I don’t mean a good person (though she is that). I mean “good” as in good at her job; a professional. Even the damaged Elisabeth is smart, and she has found a way to survive. Little Jessie is resourceful, at least for the few moments the story settles on her. And as the Conrad wife and mother, Famke Janssen (X-Men, 1999’s House On Haunted Hill, The Faculty, Rounders, Deep Rising, GoldenEye) may be confined to bed with a leg cast, but she is no less capable of protecting herself or her family when push comes to shove. Each has her moment to shine, no more than a moment because…
Unfortunately, all of these characters are pushed aside to allow our male hero to take up most of center stage. Michael Douglas’ presence is felt from start to finish in this film, and in that sense, it makes an interesting addition to the side of his work that includes Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.
In fact, this film creates an uneasy echo of Fatal Attraction, except this time, instead of being the “outside woman’s” lover, Douglas’ character in this film becomes her father. But not without some sexual anxiety, perhaps best demonstrated by Aggie Conrad’s expression at the end of the film when her husband brings Elisabeth into the fold, so to speak.
In these days of digitizing out the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in film images and rethinking the release or production of any film remotely associated with New York City and/or violence, Don’t Say A Word reaches our theaters pretty much unscathed. The shot of the Twin Towers remains, though they are in the distance and lost among the cityscape.
Likewise the violence of the film remains intact, as characters chase through the New York City streets, apartments and subway platforms, sometimes in present day, sometimes in flashback.
And forgive me for digressing for a moment to discuss the actual film viewing experience. Once again, I was in an audience that feels that it’s perfectly acceptable to talk throughout a movie. To some degree, I guess I’m learning just to expect that. However, at an “R” rated film, I don’t expect those to be unsupervised 14 year olds. At least half of the audience at Evanston’s Century Theater was clearly under the age of 17 with no parent in site.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why Don’t Say A Word has an “R” rating. Like other aspects of the film, the violence seemed muted and remote, not much worse than what I see on TV. But the film is rated “R.”
With all of this said, I did find Don’t Say A Word suspenseful with an enjoyable mystery at its core. Not a great film, but certainly a worthy diversion.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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