Don’t Say a Word

(Gary Fleder, USA, 2001)


Adapted from Andrew Klavan’s novel, Don’t Say a Word is a frustratingly innocuous thriller.

At the outset, all the ingredients seem promising enough: a disturbed, violent young woman, Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy), with a secret she will never divulge; a psychiatrist, Nathan (Michael Douglas), whose sedate life is overturned when a kidnapper, Koster (Sean Bean), takes his child; and Nathan’s feisty wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), immobilised in bed and under constant surveillance from Koster.

There are scenes that come alive – especially when Elisabeth recovers her traumatic memories while on a train platform, a set piece worthy of Brian De Palma – and felicitous details, such as the fact that several characters are bound by the vow to "not say a word".

On the whole, however, this is a story in which hardly anything intriguing or exciting happens. And the spectacle of Douglas explaining proceedings with weighty references to "cognitive distortions" and suchlike just isn’t enough to fill the void.

Don’t Say a Word is a disappointment after director Gary Fleder’s previous exercise in the thriller genre, the underrated Kiss the Girls (1997). Where that film was able to insinuate various perverse possibilities into its scenario – chipping away, as every good thriller should, at the status quo – there is nothing to sustain this one beyond the surface mechanics of its plot.

Fleder displays his trademark skills: much scattered, off-centre business in the images nestled within an envelope of moody, disquieting sounds. But there are no dramatic ambiguities here. Koster is a sadistic villain who elicits only our desire to see righteous vengeance exacted on him, while Nathan is the standard Douglas hero – frequently exasperated but fundamentally squeaky clean.

Most maddening is a television-style subplot involving Sandra (Jennifer Esposito), a cop whose involvement in the case somehow counts as one of those evolutionary personal journeys beloved of modern Hollywood.

MORE Fleder: Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

© Adrian Martin October 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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