“Don’t Say A Word” strikes me as the film equivalent of a novel by an author who ‘writes’ a book every six months or a year. The books are usually similar and the characters have been changed slightly. They go through the same motions to get to the same conclusion. “Don’t Say A Word” is like many thrillers churned out by the studios over the years. A normal, successful father/husband has to summon all of his will and strength to battle the bad guys for his wife/ daughter/ son. Astonishingly, you can predict every single ‘surprise’ in “Word”.
Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) is a successful psychiatrist racing home on Thanksgiving Eve. His wife (Famke Janssen) is laid up in bed with a broken leg thanks to her most recent skiing accident. Their daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak), likes to play hide and seek in the many closets in the Conrad’s fabulous Manhattan loft. During the ride home, an old colleague, Dr. Jerald Sachs (Oliver Platt, phoning it in in a performance he has played at least five times already), summons him to the mental hospital to meet with a strange case. The strange case is Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), an 18 year old girl who has received 20 different diagnoses over the last ten years. Conrad quickly determines that Elisabeth is faking her comatose state when she mutters “I’ll Never Tell”. Conrad speeds home to be with his wife and precocious daughter. She demands two kisses for his tardiness. The next morning, Conrad makes breakfast for his wife and starts looking for Jessie. After searching the entire apartment, he realizes that the chain on the front door was broken. At that moment, Patrick Koster (Sean Bean) calls and tells them that he has Jessie and will hold her until Conrad can get a 6 digit number out of Elisabeth’s head. He has until 5:00.
Michael Douglas has played this type of role before. In films like “A Perfect Murder” and “Disclosure”, he seems to be perfecting the role of father who becomes vigilante. I find that it stretches the credibility a bit to have these company executives/ psychiatrists/ successful suits suddenly shooting guns, driving recklessly, etc., as though they have been trained in guerilla warfare. To Douglas’ credit, he makes the transition seem somewhat smooth. Some of the battles are fought with wits and this seems natural for his character.
Brittany Murphy is very good as Elisabeth. She manages to convey the clouded perception and creepiness the character has lived through for many years. About halfway through the film, she suddenly becomes an ally to Conrad, a shift that is painted in broad strokes straining credibility to the breaking point. Yes, I get that she feels that Conrad could become the father figure she craves, but this type of shift needs to be much more subtle.
Patrick Koster is a jewelery robber and that is about it. The villain, usually the most interesting character in a film like this, is simply a very determined robber. He doesn’t even appear that psychotic. Bean, a very interesting British actor (you probably remember him best from “GoldenEye”), is given nothing to do. He merely grimaces throughout most of the picture as he hunts down the elusive prize he has sought for ten years. I would think that after ten years of obsessing over this, he would be a little off-kilter, a little unhinged, but this is not explored much to the detriment of the film and our experience watching it.
The one thing “Don’t Say A Word” has going for it is a very defined visual style. All of the scenes of Douglas’ character at home are rosy and warm. All of the scenes outside, on the mean streets of New York, are icy and blue. This shift also reflects Conrad’s state as he leaves the comforts of home and ventures out into the city.
Gary Fleder, the director of “Word”, also directed “Kiss The Girls”, both based on the same type of literary pablum. Perhaps he has found his nitch. Next, he will direct an adaptation of the new Nicholas Sparks novel, followed by Daniel Baldacci’s latest and then a chilling film based on Danielle Steele’s latest book. What a canon of films to look forward to.