October 4, 2001

Well Said

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If there were such a recipe for the standard Hollywood thriller, Don’t Say a Word could serve as the illustrative guide. Seemingly unconnected subplots, ticking clocks, erratic driving through the streets of New York City, and the innocent everyman who is suddenly transformed into the detective/hero: all are key elements in this cookie-cutter film. But we should not dismiss the movie as unfit to view on these grounds alone, because so few thrillers do surpass this model, if they even fulfill it at all.

The main plot follows Nathan Conrad, a prominent psychiatrist, whose greatest fear has just transpired — kidnappers have snatched his daughter in the middle of the night. For the doting father to recover his daughter he must coerce a mysterious six-digit number from a traumatized, presumably catatonic patient, eighteen-year-old Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy).

The film’s success rests in the confusion which the various subplots create. The central conflict of the film comes in connecting Elisabeth’s painful memories (including the horror of watching her father killed by a subway train) the kidnappers’ demands, a botched jewel theft ten years earlier, and several bodies discovered in the Hudson River. For the many plots to reach the same conclusion, a myriad of questions go unanswered and numerous inconsistencies arise during the course of the film, causing the viewer to question the probability of the action.

Additionally, the film neither explains Elisabeth’s relationship to and knowledge of the bad guys, nor how they are aware of her knowledge. This point proves especially troublesome since Elisabeth has been institutionalized and the kidnappers have been imprisoned since their last encounter. The slight non sequitors really do not hinder the suspense of the film, other than to add confusion to the already chaotic subplots.

Michael Douglas barely strays from his enactment of past characters. For instance, if the beloved character of Andy Shepherd, the American president from the 1995 film The American President, lost his daughter, Douglas’ performance would have closely resembled that of Conrad. Perhaps filmmakers had Douglas in mind when transposing the role from the novel, in which case Douglas does best to play himself.

Brittany Murphy shines as the disturbed Elisabeth. Her glazed eyes, constant movement, and refusal to relive her past make Elisabeth the most intense character of the movie. Her eerie presence alone could support the tension in the movie, and because so little is exposed about her past and the six-digit number she harbors, one wonders if she really is insane or simply a master of disguise.

Don’t Say A Word follows the quintessential mystery outline, but does a fine job of doing so — it aims to keep viewers on the edge of their seats and offers several possibilities for a presumption of the conclusion. Perhaps filmmakers so often mimic a standard formula because it delivers.

Archived article by Laura Rowntree