Chicago Sun Times Review

Last Update: 28 September 2001

Source: Chicago Sun Times

28 September 2001


DON'T SAY A WORD / **1/2 (R)


'Don't Say a Word'' is one of those movies where a happy professional
couple suddenly find their lives threatened by depraved outsiders. Like
airline owner Mel Gibson in ''Ransom'' and Dr. Harrison Ford in
''Frantic,'' psychiatrist Michael Douglas has to discover if he
possesses the basic instincts to fight to the death for the ones he

The movie turns this into a race against the clock when kidnappers take
his 8-year-old daughter and give him a 5 p.m. deadline. To do what? To
pry a six-digit number from the memory of a mental patient. And that's
not all. For the second half of the movie, there are four parallel
plots, involving Douglas working over the patient, his wife struggling
to defend herself with her leg in a cast, his daughter trying to
outsmart the kidnappers and a woman detective stumbling over the crime
during a related investigation.

Plotting this dense is its own reward. We cast loose from the shores of
plausibility and are tossed by the waves of contrivance. I like
thrillers better when they put believable characters in possible
situations (''Deep End,'' with Tilda Swinton, was accused of
implausibility but is cinema verite compared to this). But I also have
a sneaky affection for Douglas thrillers where he starts out as a
sleek, rich businessman and ends up with an ax in his hand. Who else
can start out so well-groomed and end up as such a mad dog?

The movie was directed by Gary Fleder, whose ''Kiss the Girls'' (1997)
was taut and stylish. Here again he shows a poetic visual touch,
cutting between cozy domestic interiors and action scenes shot in
gritty grays and blues. The look of his pictures shows the touch of an
artist, and he has a fondness for character quirks that flavors the
material. Consider Douglas' fellow psychiatrist, played by Oliver
Platt, who has his own reasons for immediate results.

The bank robbery opening the movie is recycled from countless similar
scenes, but then the movie makes a twist and the plot keeps piling it
on. What's remarkable is how certain performances, especially Brittany
Murphy's as the mental patient and Sky McCole Bartusiak's as the
kidnapped girl, find their own rhythm and truth in the middle of all
that urgency.

Some might wonder (actually, I might wonder) why the villain can wait
10 years and then give Douglas only eight hours to work with his
patient. Or at the way Murphy's character is sane and insane to suit
the conveniences of the plot (a glib explanation doesn't account for
what should be the lingering effects of drugs). And the police
detective (Jennifer Esposito) is pushing it when she arrives in the
nick of time.

Sean Bean, as the villain who wants his ''property,'' is as malevolent
as can be without suffering serious dental damage.

Douglas has made roles like this his own, and redeems them by skirting
just barely this side of overacting--which is about where a character
in this plot should be positioned. Shame that his subtler and more
human work in movies like ''Wonder Boys'' is seen by smaller audiences
than his fatal/basic/instinct/attraction/disclosure movies.

The end of ''Don't Say a Word'' does descend, as so many thrillers do,
to a species of a chase. But the final locations are darkly effective,
and I liked the way the villain arrives at a spectacular end. But the
movie as a whole looks and occasionally plays better than it is. There
is a point, when the wife is struggling with her leg cast and crutches
and the daughter is cleverly signaling her whereabouts and Douglas is
trying to perform instant psychiatry at an Emergency Room tempo, and
flashbacks accompany the time-honored Visit to the Scene of the
Previous Trauma, when it just all seemed laid on too thick. There is a
difference between racing through a thriller and wallowing in it.


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