Don't Say a Word
2001, R, 115 min. Directed by Gary Fleder. Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Brittany Murphy, Jennifer Esposito, Skye Mccole Bartusiak, Famke Janssen, Oliver Platt.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 28, 2001
The last couple of years have been good to Michael Douglas, and, no, I'm not referring to his acquisition of a Mrs. Michael Douglas. His rumpled performance as a washed-up creative writing professor in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys seemed effortlessly charming; he followed it with a role in Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-tsunami Traffic and in the Douglas-produced comedy One Night at McCool's (which tanked both critically and commercially, but did put the perpetual purveyor of cool in gold medallions and fake buck teeth, thus earmarking it for sheer chutzpah.) Don't Say a Word finds Douglas back in less daring terrain: his old friend, the thriller. It's not a bad addition to the canon -- certainly not as awful as The Perfect Murder, though not as clever or gripping as The Game -- it's just such familiar territory for Douglas it's hard not to feel at least a little bit ho-hum about it. That said, Don't Say a Word manages its fair share of suspense in a tightly wound plot centering around an NYC psychiatrist, Nathan Conrad (Douglas). His new patient, a shaky, gaunt young woman named Elisabeth (Murphy), holds in her head a six-digit number that somehow connects to a missing, million-dollar jewel; stock-baddie Koster (Bean) is the heist man so desperate for that number that he kidnaps Conrad's young daughter as incentive for Conrad to extract that number. He's given seven hours to unlock the maximum-security mind of Elisabeth, who's been institutionalized ever since she witnessed Koster pushing her father in front of a subway at age 8. (In one of the creepier moments of the film, an emaciated Elisabeth tangles a bony finger at Conrad and sing-songs, “I'll never te-uhlll.” Clearly, the good doctor's got his work cut out for him.) The compression of time works in the film's favor, as does its numerous damsels in distress: Elisabeth, Conrad's daughter, and his wife, played by Janssen, who's bed-bound with her leg in a cast, thus putting her in an extremely vulnerable position as she too becomes prey for the kidnappers. In a concurrent story, Jennifer Esposito (Spin City, Summer of Sam) plays a police detective whose murder investigation eventually ties in to the kidnapping. Unfortunately, her role also proves the most confusing; director Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) mishandles her introductory scenes, making for a rather bewildering skip in logic between points A and B. The rest of the film moves along more smoothly, owing largely to Douglas' effective performance as the beleaguered doctor -- nobody quite manufactures emotional strain plus swagger like Douglas. But Murphy steals the show, something that is fast becoming old hat for her. From her deceptively fluffy breakthrough role in Clueless, Murphy has consistently wowed, and was just as deserving of an Oscar as her Girl, Interrupted co-star Angelina Jolie. Murphy's screentime takes a back seat to Douglas', of course, but from that back seat she makes a very big noise.