Review - Houston Chronicle

Last Update: 10 October 2001

Source: The Houston Chronicle

28 September 2001

Don't Say a Word Does Give a Thrill
Eric Harrison

Nathan Conrad, the psychiatrist Michael Douglas plays in ``Don't Say a Word,'' leads a perfect life. He has a successful practice, seeing rich neurotics in his finely appointed New York office. He's married to a beautiful woman 20 years his junior. And he has a bright, charming daughter who adores him.

These good times can't last.

When an old colleague summons Nathan to a state mental hospital on the day before Thanksgiving, the faint odor of resentment hangs in the air. Nathan long ago abandoned those gloomy corridors. The colleague (Oliver Platt) makes a joke of it, but he thinks Nathan sold out.

We know better, of course. Success accrues to Nathan for no other reason than that he's flawless. His perfection is obvious when he steps into a guarded cell to meet Elizabeth (Brittany Murphy), a troubled young woman with a history of violence. No other doctor can connect, but in minutes, Nathan deduces that she is faking catatonia.

By the end of their first session, Elizabeth begins to speak, though what she says is puzzling. ``You want what they want, don't you?'' she says. ``I'll never tell.''

``Don't Say a Word'' is a generally well-made thriller that doesn't go out of its way to insult us. Based on a novel by Andrew Klavan, it builds nicely to a high level of suspense. Though it does insult us, ultimately, it's never less than riveting.

Prognosticators are abuzz about what type of entertainment the country is in the mood for in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Now isn't the time for suspense, one line of thinking goes. But is there ever a bad time to watch decency prevail? ``Don't Say a Word'' goes down smoothly.

Propelling the plot is an improbable scheme hatched by a cadre of technologically savvy jewel thieves. They got snookered out of the booty from a robbery 10 years earlier. For complex reasons, only Elizabeth can lead them to it. They snatch Nathan's daughter to force him to get the information.
How they do this, and the way they manage to keep tabs on Nathan, his wife (Famke Janssen) and his patient stretch credulity. For the most part, however, the film maintains a pace and tension level that keeps us involved.

We all can identify, on some level, with the plight of the good father trying to save his little girl. The screenwriters pretty much leave out anything that might bog the story down or interfere with our primal reaction. In fact, they work extra hard to reinforce the father/endangered daughter relationship theme.
Elizabeth is faking catatonia, but her emotional development clearly stalled when she was traumatized at roughly the same age as Nathan's daughter. She, too, is a frightened child. Nathan bonds with her by bringing in some of his daughter's belongings, including a doll.

With the kidnappers watching his every move - his home is full of hidden video cameras, and someone follows when he leaves the house - Nathan can't call the cops. He has no choice but to cooperate. At the same time, a police detective (Jennifer Esposito) is slowly closing in on the criminals, connecting them to dead bodies littered about town.

A good movie - the kind Hollywood studios rarely make these days - would have given Nathan some defining characteristic besides flawlessness, to keep things interesting. Perhaps, in less expedient, more creatively daring times, the director and screenwriters wouldn't have quickly brushed aside the claim that he sold out his principles.

But the makers of ``Don't Say a Word'' are satisfied making Nathan just a terrific doctor who loves his family. They probably merely want to keep things uncomplicated, but they've inadvertently suffused this film with a subtle sense of social determinism.

Apparently, Nathan sees the accoutrements of wealth as his just rewards. Good-looking and a good psychiatrist, he shows no sign of being conflicted about leaving behind the homelier, less competent doctors who toil in the trenches with society's dredges.

The bad guys, too, have similar social stratifications, underlined by the movie's use of social stereotypes. Sean Bean, a good-looking British actor, plays the brainy, cold-hearted criminal mastermind. A sports-loving motormouth is a low man on his team; an African-American, he's all id and instinct, unencumbered by ideas. A dim-witted, white, tattooed giant from the Midwest does the heavy lifting. Thankfully, they didn't give him an Ozarks accent.

The movie glides over the ethical conflict the situation creates for Nathan. As a doctor, he's obliged to help his patient, but as a father he can only be concerned about his daughter. The audience can forgive him for putting his daughter first. It's harder to forgive him for continuing to play doctor long after it stops making sense. But he's such a dedicated shrink that he can't leave a patient uncured.

There is a point when Nathan puts both himself and his patient in unnecessary danger. Instead of giving her a shot of thiopental sodium, or ``truth serum,'' as his colleague wants to do, he takes her on a field trip to meet the bad guys.

It's a plot contrivance - movies like this require the hero to take decisive action - but so many logical lapses are necessary for this ending to work that only our overwhelming need to see father and daughter reunited, along with director Gary Fleder's low-key workmanlike approach to the material, keep us from rolling our eyes.

Fleder, who made ``Kiss the Girls,'' is a competent director of gritty, urban commercial movies. Some of his best work has been done in television (including a gripping 1993 episode of ``Homicide: Life on the Streets'' - that some scenes here call to mind - set almost entirely in a subway station).

To work in television, a director has to tailor his style to suit the look and conventions of the show. The restraint this calls for works well here. Every shot, visual effect and sound is in service to the story. The script would have benefited from similar rigorous craftsmanship.

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