Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Brittany Murphy, Famke Janssen, Jennifer Esposito, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Oliver Platt
Rated R for Violence, Including Some Gruesome Images, and Language
It's so nice to see a thriller that trusts its story and its characters to get the job done. Too often in thrillers we get lazy or inexperienced filmmakers who try to get the attention of the ADD crowd by overflowing the story with flash cuts or MTV-like special effects. It's meant to keep the audience's attention when in reality it distances them.
Brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Conrad (Douglas) is on his way home to make preparations for Thanksgiving with his Aggie (Janssen), who broke her leg in a skiing accident, and adorable daughter Jessie (Bartusiak) when he gets a 911 from a colleague. Dr. Louis Sachs (Platt) has just received a difficult patient and needs Nathan's help. Her name is Elizabeth Burrows (Murphy), whose chart is a laundry list of the worst psychiatric disorders. He talks with her for a few minutes and calls it a night. The next morning, he and Aggie wake up to find Jessie missing. Then the phone rings. She was abducted in the middle of the night by a man who knows that Nathan saw Elizabeth. She has a number that he desperately wants, and if Nathan wants to see Jessie again, he's going to have to find a way to get it from the psychotic patient by five o'clock. Or else.
It's a great high concept as far as thrillers like this go. It's not as psychologically dense as, say, "The Silence of the Lambs" or as sadistically clever as "Seven," but it doesn't have to be. This is a simple thriller and a damn good one at that. You get what you pay for.
The performances help a lot. Michael Douglas is surprisingly effective as the soothing psychiatrist. Remember, this is the guy who played Gordon Gekko. He's compassionate and devoted, but he's also smart. When he sees an opportunity to change the game in his favor, he takes it. Brittany Murphy got a huge career boost playing the wacko patient. It's the kind of role that every actor dreams for and Murphy hits it right out of the park. Famke Janssen does a lot with the limited role of the crippled housewife, adding a bit of "Rear Window" to the proceedings. Her character isn't exactly necessary to the plot, but then again I'm not complaining. And no one plays a cool British villain like Sean Bean. He's bad to the bone. The film reunites Bean and Janssen for the first time since their Bond adventure "GoldenEye" five years prior, but they don't share any scenes together here. Jennifer Esposito adds her charms as Detective Cassidy, who slowly puts the pieces together, while Skye McCole Bartusiak and Oliver Platt provide some color as well.
Gary Fleder directs this material as well as any one could. Which is to say he plays it straight and doesn't try to quirk it up or make it flashy. Like the best directors, he trusts his actors and the story enough to let them take center stage. There are a few scenes that don't land (such as the interrogation scene with Esposito and Platt), but most do.
"Don't Say A Word" is what it is. It's not a masterpiece nor is it an important film. It will never be offered by the Criterion Collection. But it moves fast and keeps the suspense in high gear from beginning to end. You can't ask for much more than that.