The Stax Report: Script Review of Don't Say a Word


Last Update: 12 June 2001


Source: IGN Film Force

08 June 2001

The Stax Report: Script Review of Don't Say a Word
Stax looks at the script for the new thriller starring Michael Douglas, Famke Janssen (X-Men), and Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings).
by Stax

Stax here with my reaction to the screenplay for Don’t Say a Word! This 132-page November 22nd, 2000 rewrite by Patrick Smith Kelly (A Perfect Murder) is an adaptation of the 1992 award-winning novel by screenwriter-author Andrew Klavan (A Shock to the System). Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) is directing the picture. The cast includes Michael Douglas, GoldenEye costars Famke Janssen and Sean Bean, Oliver Platt (TV’s The West Wing), Brittany Murphy (Clueless), Jennifer Esposito (Summer of Sam), and Guy Torry (Pearl Harbor). Kopelson Entertainment and New Regency are producing Don’t Say a Word, which was filmed in New York City and Toronto between December 2000 and April 2001. Twentieth Century Fox will release it sometime in 2002. (By the way, pictures of Sean Bean on the set of Don't Say a Word can be found at this fan site.)

Don’t Say a Word is a thriller about a respected shrink, Dr. Nathan Conrad (Douglas), who is coerced into helping the thugs who’ve kidnapped his young daughter Jessie. The villains, led by Koster (Bean), are after the lost loot from their old heist. The secret to the location of this hidden treasure is locked inside the mind of a young mental patient named Elizabeth Burrows (Murphy). Years ago, Elizabeth witnessed horrible things that left her traumatized and in mental health institutions for most of her life. She is scared of unknown pursuers returning to get her; obviously, this is where Koster comes in but I won’t reveal how they’re connected. Nathan is asked to treat Elizabeth by his beleaguered colleague, Dr. Jerald Sachs (Platt) at Bellevue Hospital. Shortly thereafter, Nathan and his writer-wife Aggie (Janssen) wake up on Thanksgiving morning to a nightmare.

Koster and his thugs have kidnapped Jessie from the Conrads’ home during the night and are now holding her hostage. If Nathan wants his daughter back alive he must do what Koster wants. And what Koster wants is for Nathan to use his renowned psychiatric skills to pry the whereabouts of the loot out of Elizabeth Burrows’ troubled mind. To make matters worse, Nathan must do all this by five o’clock that evening or Jessie will be killed. Koster has one more condition for Nathan to follow: “don’t say a word” to the cops or Jessie is dead. Koster uses hi-tech surveillance to spy on the Conrads and to track Nathan throughout the day. Although the Conrads are prevented from contacting the police, a diligent NYPD detective named Sandra Cassidy (Esposito) is investigating a seemingly separate murder case and soon finds herself inching closer to Koster’s gang and the desperate Dr. Conrad.

Don’t Say a Word often reminded me of Ransom. A successful man’s child is kidnapped by a mysterious hood who then forces the frazzled dad to do his bidding if he wants to see the kid alive again. In both films, the protagonists finally muster up the nerve to turn the tables on the bad guys. These are superficial similarities but they were strong enough for me to think of Ransom throughout this script. There are also slight nods to classic thrillers like Rear Window and Night of the Hunter. Aggie recently broke her leg while skiing so she is bedridden throughout the entire story. She’s forced to remain at home even though she knows Koster is watching everything she does. Despite being immobilized, Aggie does try to outwit her nemesis at a few points. Aggie’s plight also reminded me somewhat of the forthcoming David Fincher thriller The Panic Room, where thieves terrorize a woman and her child that conceal themselves inside their townhouse. Again, these were just superficial similarities but they were noteworthy.

So did this script work for me? Was it thrilling? Did it have enough twists and turns? I enjoy thrillers in general and I found this tale to be a by-the-book suspense yarn. I figured out a few “surprises” fairly early on. I deduced where the characters were headed, who might betray whom, etc., just by virtue of the fact that I’ve read and seen countless thrillers by now and am familiar with the genre’s formulae. This doesn’t mean, though, that I still didn’t find the story somewhat fun. Like A Perfect Murder, Don’t Say a Word was an often predictable thriller that I nevertheless enjoyed for what it was. It was a page-turner and I remained interested in what happened next.

There were, however, the same kind of plot holes and lapses in logic here that plague so many other thrillers. For example, this is the kind of suspense story where it takes the police/cavalry twice as long to reach a certain destination than it did the hero even though they know exactly where he was headed and are using the same mode of transport to get there. Regardless, the hero and the villains still have enough time to perform a series of time-consuming tasks before the cops finally show up. To its credit, the story’s “showdown” utilizes a historic New York location that I don’t recall being used in any other film before. I won’t tell you what the place is since that might help you figure out where and how the loot is stashed. This was a very creepy locale and Mr. Kelly did a good job in exploiting the visual elements it provided. This setting gave the last act of Don’t Say a Word a nice macabre tone that I appreciated.

The crux of this story, however, is the relationship between Dr. Conrad and his patient Elizabeth Burrows. Because of the “beat the clock” nature of this tale, neither character has the time to develop much of a relationship with one another. Conrad basically has to use Elizabeth to get what he wants, the sleaziness of this act not being lost on the good doctor. Nathan tries his best to achieve what Koster wants while also respecting Elizabeth’s fragile mental state. He must essentially hurry Elizabeth along to a “breakthrough” by the end of his workday! My readership includes several medical professionals; I can already tell that I’m going to get feedback from them saying how “dumb” this gimmick sounds. Lay people like myself might be able to suspend their disbelief but I’m not sure if those more familiar with psychiatry will buy into this story’s premise.

This wasn’t helped by the impression Nathan gave me. Frankly, he didn’t strike me as the wonderful shrink the story claims he is. He gets Elizabeth to trust him and to open up by (gasp!) just talking to her nicely and bringing her some baubles; his peers have simply been medicating her and not trying to get to know her. No other shrink thought of this approach in all the years she’s been under professional care? I know Nathan doesn’t have the time to prove to us that he’s some kind of Dr. Freud but even to a lay person like myself his techniques didn’t make him seem particularly exceptional. No other shrink besides Nathan could’ve helped Koster get what he wants from Elizabeth? If you have trouble accepting that then you may have trouble with the entire story. Perhaps all this would've worked better for me if Nathan had already been treating Elizabeth when Koster strikes (Nathan's just accepted her case when Koster comes calling), or if Elizabeth had been a patient of Nathan's in the past who he must now revisit since no one else understands her like he does.

Also, Elizabeth isn’t so much a fully realized character as she is the story’s “MacGuffin”. You might think that the hidden loot would be but it really isn’t. It is the information that’s locked inside Elizabeth’s head that drives the story forward and not the loot itself. The information she possesses leads the characters to the treasure and it is the obtaining of this deeply submerged secret that makes the characters do what they do. The key to unlocking Elizabeth’s childhood memories is up to Nathan to find. What leads Nathan to this breakthrough - and the “secret” trauma Elizabeth experienced as a child that made her shut down - was fairly easy to discover since there were never any red herrings used to make me think it was anything else but the obvious. And as bad as Elizabeth’s childhood trauma was, I was never really convinced that it was horrific enough to make her freeze up for a decade. But that’s just me, folks. You can decide for yourselves when the picture opens if you buy that or not.

Despite my laundry list of problems with this story, I found myself enjoying Don’t Say a Word enough that I recommend you see it when its released. It may not knock your socks off (somebody literally does get their sock knocked off at one point in this script!) but it has the makings of a decent popcorn flick. I’m a fan of both Michael Douglas and the thriller genre so perhaps it was a given that I’d find something to like about Don’t Say a Word. Perhaps you will, too. After all, we should all be allowed a guilty pleasure now and then. – STAX

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