Don’t Say a Word

Over the last few decades, the number of films that qualify as true psychological thrillers has markedly dwindled. Story lines that actually expect an audience to think have mostly been supplanted by Big Concept pictures populated with wooden stars and larded with fireballs and action points every ten minutes. In movie theaters these days, suspenseful situations are usually resolved via violence, not intellect and style. So it is particularly disappointing that Don’t Say A Word begins by crafting an inventive premise rife with tension, but then like a Chicago Cubs bullpen in September, manages to find a way to squander most of its lead and provide only the same old second-division finish.

Prominent New York psychiatrist Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) has it all: a gorgeous wife, charming young daughter and a successful Upper West Side practice. He is summoned to consult on a case involving Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a near-catatonic young woman. She’s been institutionalized for over ten years and unless someone can reach inside her troubled mind soon, she’ll be sent to a real-life purgatory, one of the state’s worst mental health facilities. On Thanksgiving morning the ante is raised when Conrad’s daughter is kidnapped. It turns out that Elisabeth is the only person who knows a six-digit number that’s the key to finding a ten million dollar gemstone hidden after a 1991 bank robbery. Conrad only has until 5:00PM to elicit the number from Elisabeth and save his daughter.

At this point the film holds promise. What could be a fairly pedestrian "race against time" plot is made more challenging since the only tools Conrad has to work with are cerebral–his mind and Elisabeth’s. An additional level of exposure for Conrad is that his wife (Famke Janssen) is laid up in bed at home, her right leg in a traction cast. Sure, there are a few areas where some major suspension of disbelief is required. The kidnappers have the ability to see and hear everything that’s going on in Conrad’s home and Elisabeth’s ward cell, they also have the ability to seemingly tap into any phone anywhere. Add in a few other minor quibbles: Douglas’ leading lady is yet again a couple of decades his junior, and Conrad manages to diagnose the basics of Elisabeth’s disorder in about half an hour, after other experts have spent years observing her. But screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly’s basic premise is an engaging one, and director Gary Fleder keeps things moving with a gritty, past paced style that fits Conrad’s jittery and paranoid emotional state. You truly want to know what’s going to happen next.

But then the film’s personality goes oddly bipolar, as Kelly and Fleder make a couple jarring moves that topple the story from its finely-balanced tightrope path of taut psychological pressure and drop it onto a fairly standard action-adventure assembly line. In a matter of just a few scenes, Conrad manages to acquire a gun, remove Elisabeth from the institution, and set off on a cross-Manhattan chase. In true film cliche fashion, Conrad’s abducted 8-year-old manages to prove more clever than the adults who are holding her, and Conrad’s wife even manages to get in a few well-timed licks against the kidnappers. By film’s end the transformation is complete and Nathan Conrad has metamorphosed from Oliver Sacks into "Dirty Harry" Callahan, complete with a bitterly-delivered tough-guy tagline as he holds a big cold .45 to a bad guy’s temple. Huh?

Amusement park rides can provide momentary thrills, but there’s no real danger because the outcome is never uncertain; we’ve experienced it all before. And so it is with Don’t Say A Word - once it makes its abrupt transition it loses most of its appeal. It’s a film that makes a concerted initial effort to construct a complicated and suspenseful scenario but then strangely and gleefully casts it aside to chase down the street after yet another gunfight, indistinguishable from those seen countless times before.

– Bob Aulert