Lacking the good taste to postpone the release of this silly thriller until a less volatile time in American history (assuming one ever comes), the producers of Don't Say a Word have opted to foist upon us images of detonating New York City buildings, carefully calculated acts of violence and even someone being buried alive. Nice.
Never mind that Oliver Platt spends a lot of his screen time in profile, forcing us to stare at his too-cool-for-school sideburns; this pedestrian stuff--amidst a rather routine plot and standard cop-show stylings--just doesn't add up to much entertainment value, regardless of the cultural climate. Besides, even if you happen to be seeking a cinematic hybrid consisting of a kidnapped kid (à la Ron Howard's Ransom) blended with a feisty female cop and yucky corpses (like The Bone Collector) punctuated by Michael Douglas pitching fits (you name it), you'd be better off just renting those movies. Or, for that matter, not.
The narrative itself is a model of simplicity, which could have given screenwriters Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly plenty of latitude for experimentation in adapting Andrew Klavan's novel, but, alas, these opportunities are steadfastly wasted. Instead, under the brusque and pushy direction of Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls), the movie's dramatic course becomes an excuse for excesses of familiar and not particularly engrossing technique.
Cloaked in his threadbare role of oppressed mensch fighting back, Douglas plays a Manhattan psychiatrist named Conrad whose cozy, yuppified existence is shaken to the core when his darling 8-year-old daughter, Jessie (sharp-eyed Skye McCole Bartusiak), is suddenly abducted. Since his much-younger wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), is bedridden with a broken leg, and the cops cannot be alerted due to the extreme sensitivity of the circumstances, it's up to Conrad to meet the perpetrators' demands and find the mysterious six-digit number they desire.
Naturally, the mysterious number is contained in the mind of a wildly disturbed mental patient named Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy), who is either a genuine nutcase or else she's watched too many Fiona Apple videos--the doctors aren't sure which. Of course, what nobody bargains for is that when Elisabeth isn't affording us a trendy eyeful of navel or a lurid flash of panties, she's busily repressing horrendously painful memories of a trauma 10 years dormant, when she--like crafty little Jessie--was a mere tot of eight. Something ghastly happened to Elisabeth, and it's up to Conrad to find out what is was, just as it's up to us to sit through several sequences of grainy flashback concerning people running and yelling and chasing each other.
This is the main problem with Don't Say a Word, the glitch that throws its good intentions right off the track: With the exception of the beguiling Bartusiak, everyone has their emotional intensity stuck in high gear, delivering stilted histrionics instead of gripping performances. Scenes like Conrad's final confrontation with Koster's gang (which turns mercilessly cruel) might have worked with a bit of pacing or logic, but Fleder is only interested in adrenaline and payback, to the point of absurdity.
This is by far the most troubling aspect of the movie--its shamelessly formulaic design. Although there are reasons to like the villain (Koster declares his hatred for football) and to loathe the protagonist (witness Conrad ramming his Range Rover through traffic), there are many more elements thrown in simply--even aggressively--to hook the general viewing audience. By littering the movie with pop iconography and intermittent teases of sexuality, the filmmakers seem desperate to win and sustain our attention. But isn't that what the plot is for?
It takes brave and imaginative people to craft a modern thriller that thrills, a Silence of the Lambs, a Professional, a Sixth Sense. It takes darkly alluring ideas, a taste of ambivalence. What we have here is a mad dash toward the obvious, in which the leads look irritated and the extras look tired. During the climax, when Koster lingers upon a detail to reflect, "Can you imagine what will happen if this is bullshit?" a thousand answers come to mind, all of them more enticing than the pat mush that we actually get. Apparently there just aren't many thrills to be wrung from the hands of paranoiacs.