Don't Tell a Soul
2021, R, 83 min. Directed by Alex McAulay. Starring Rainn Wilson, Jack Dylan Grazer, Fionn Whitehead, Mena Suvari.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 15, 2021
It's hard for actors who specialize in horror or dark dramas to get taken seriously, but then sometimes it's hard for actors who haven't come up in the genre to be seen as horror actors. Rainn Wilson carries the millstone success of ambitious lickspittle Dwight Schrute in The Office around his neck, even though he left a memorable and bloody footprint in the darker world as Bill Hudley, aka roadside attraction Fish Boy in House of 1000 Corpses. Yet his most memorable role should have been as itinerant killer William Colby in SXSW 2015 Midnighter The Boy, but that film got overshadowed by the much schlockier flick of the same name from the following year. There was a primordial cunning to his performance that no one seems to have tapped since – until Don't Tell a Soul, a bleak story of inherited trauma and broken family.
As security guard Hamby, he falls into disaster, and quite literally. He stumbles across teen brothers Matt (Whitehead, Dunkirk) and Joey (It and Shazam's Grazer) as they're breaking into a house that's been tented for fumigation. He sees them making a break with their spoils but not the abandoned pit into which he plunges. If they were two regular kids, that would be one thing, but describing their home as dysfunctional would be generous. Their father died, and their mother (Suvari, a rictus cough away from leaving the boys orphans) is surviving on pain meds and soda. That's left younger brother Joey at the not-so-tender mercies of Matt, who seems to have only inherited his father's bullying ways and acquired none of the proxy parental skills that his new role would require. When given the options of getting Hamby out and going to jail himself, he's all for leaving this stranger to rot. At least Joey has a little bit of a conscience left and sneaks him some food and water.
In his first film since the seemingly lost Dogme 95 entry The Sparkle Room, McAulay has crafted a terse, bleak drama. It's reminiscent of the portrait of a corrupt male friendship in Super Dark Times, but with the added pressures of kinship and family. To describe Don't Tell a Soul as a story of toxic masculinity is both accurate but, in a time when every film with a flawed or unpleasant male an/protagonist gets that tag, almost glib. There's something rancid between the boys. Matt is vile, a monstrous bully with no shreds of conscience left. Yet is Joey really a good young man? When his responses are so stunted to what they're doing, it's easy to see how he could well turn out worse than his sibling. Both young actors understand the weight of these twisted legacies and brutalized circumstances that have led them to where they are. As for Wilson, he fits effortlessly into this equation as the proxy father upon whom Matt can inflict his one sense of revenge against his late dad, and in whom Joey finds something like parental approval. He understands the human behind the monster, whether he's playing under the skin of a killer or as the victim of an arbitrary universe. That's why his attempts to get through to Joey – seemingly so much more salvageable than the cruel and selfish Matt – give Don't Tell a Soul its bruised heart.