Don’t Say a Word may be the name of Michael Douglas’ newest psycho-thriller, but I have a feeling the phrase got tossed around quite a bit by the studio before the film’s release. In regards to the film’s writer and director, my guess would be that two words were actually forbidden from their vocabulary: plausibility and logic.
Which is not to say that the film, directed by veteran Gary Fleder and adapted from the book by Andrew Klavan, isn’t frequently a lot of fun. Though it is riddled with laughable plot contrivances and unnecessary characters who impede the flow of the story, this movie isn’t concerned with making sense, and its pace and vigor almost divert your attention from such mean-spirited questions.
Michael Douglas stars as Dr. Nathan Conrad, a devoted family man who has abandoned work in a New York mental hospital for the relative ease and comfort of a lucrative private practice. His gift for treating teenagers attracts the attention of Patrick Koster (Sean Bean), a sinister bank robber who kidnaps the psychiatrist’s daughter and holds her hostage while Conrad works with a deeply disturbed mental patient.
That patient is Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a violent schizophrenic whose knowledge of a mysterious six-digit combination makes her the center of Koster’s next plot. Early scenes between Conrad and his new patient are surprisingly tense. Having been shown photographs of Burrows’ most recently brutalized victim, Conrad approaches the sedated patient with an unsteady resolve reminiscent of a timid Clarice Starling first approaching Hannibal Lecter.
But Don’t Say a Word is by no means a peer of the infinitely superior Silence of the Lambs. While both films focus on unlocking the secrets of an imprisoned genius in a short period of time, the tension in Silence of the Lambs is two-fold: The audience doesn’t know if Hannibal Lecter will cooperate or when the next potential victim may die. Don’t Say a Word doesn’t have the patience for such complexity. In this film, the protagonist’s deadline is five o’clock.
Fortunately for Conrad and his daughter, plausibility becomes less and less of an issue as the hour grows near. Though his deeply psychotic patient has allegedly been in and out of mental wards for the past decade, Conrad takes roughly 20 minutes (no exaggeration necessary) to figure out what’s really troubling her.
The story unfolds quickly from there. The talented Jennifer Esposito does what she can in a role that was created purely in service of the plot, while Douglas’ character remains stoic and resolute, if you can believe it, despite the tremendous pressure he’s under. Oliver Platt surfaces briefly as a deceitful shrink whose better lines were most likely left on the cutting room floor.
Yet for every superfluous character and lapse in logic—and there are many—Don’t Say a Word provides a genuine scare and unexpected plot twist. Purists may be annoyed by the myriad loose ends that abound even as the credits begin to roll, but those with a sense of humor will enjoy the unintentional comedy of the inconsistencies in the plot.
As with all of the other films set for release this fall, Don’t Say a Word will be overshadowed by the events of Sept. 11. Near the end of the film, a speedboat races across the Long Island Sound. The sun is sinking into the ocean, the sky bleeds gray and orange, and the towers of the World Trade Center stand tall against the distant horizon. It is a striking shot, one that resonates deeply as the action moves into a dark, silent cemetery. A foreboding haze rises into the night air, the movie falls swiftly away.
Don’t Say A Word