Eventually, Tell No One tells you everything. Whether this flies right with you depends on whether you like your mysteries spelled out with airtight thoroughness, or whether you like them to remain, in the end, um… well, still a bit mysterious. Tell No One opts for the full disclosure route out of a certain formal necessity – thematically and stylistically, it never feels like the type of mystery that would have been well served by retaining any ambiguity in the end.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that the very deliberate, step by step, bullet pointed explanation that eats up the last 20-minutes of the film is a bit of a cheat, pointing to the weaknesses of a plot that skimps so much on workable clues that the audience could never hope to untangle it without aid. Sure, the increasingly bewildering series of confusing actions and narrative non sequiturs actually all fall tidily into place in the end - everything does fit together, any potential plot holes are neatly plugged up. But where’s the fun in having the film have to hold your hand to get there?
And that’s the problem – because for much of its run time, Tell No One is, a lot of fun. Smartly written, cleverly constructed, and frantically paced, it’s an old school thriller, calling to mind a cool Gallic mix of vintage Hitchcock (North by Northwest and Vertigo) and a dash of The Fugitive.
The film opens with a nighttime idyll, a young medical student, Alexandre Beck (Francois Cluzet) and his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) enjoying a late night skinny dip in a country pond. They quarrel briefly over some incidental thing, and Margot swims to shore in a huff, vanishing into the bushes. We hear a scream, and a dull thud. Alexandre tries to make it back to the shore, but before he gets anywhere he is hit in the face with a baseball bat, falling backward into the water and blackness.
The film reawakens eight years later, Alexandre now a successful doctor, and widower. Although initially a suspect himself, he was eventually cleared when his wife’s death was attributed, somewhat spuriously, to a notorious French serial killer, and the case is presumably now closed. But nagging questions have always remained. Like, how and why did all autopsy photographs of Margot go missing? Or how did Alexandre, who was knocked into a three day coma by the attack, get out of the water and back on to the dock?
So, when one day Alexandre receives a mysterious e-mail linking to a video recording of someone who looks an awful lot like Margot, he’s obviously thrown a bit for a loop, and the uncertainties about her murder are dredged back up and stirred. Is this some sort of cruel, malicious hoax? Or is his wife actually alive, and trying to get back in touch with him? The coincidental discovery of two bodies buried near the spot where his wife was murdered, leads the cops to reopen the case entirely, throwing suspicion back on Alexandre, and Tell No One is off and running (usually quite literally).
It would obviously be a breach of professional responsibility to reveal too much, or anything really, of what follows from there. The action begins to unspool at an ever accelerating rate, the confusion keeping pace. The film does not give its hero, or us, a lot of time to think, continuously throwing new twists in our path.
Director Guillaume Canet deploys just about every trick in the book to keep things cooking – mysterious lock boxes containing presumably buried secrets; mysterious, murderous thugs harassing and pursuing our hero; crusty old detectives who believe in the hero’s innocence even if the evidence says otherwise; a subplot involving steeple chase (?! – don’t worry, it makes sense in the end); Hitchockian doubling of female characters.
The film would almost feel like a hollow genre exercise, a sort of mystery/thriller connect-the-dots coloring book, if it all weren’t handled with such enthusiastic deftness and intelligence. It’s a smart film that is self-aware without ever being “wink wink” about it – its lack of irony is refreshing, and the key to its success for most of its run time. Though part homage to Hitchcockian traditions and conventions, it also makes a strong case to stand as a worthy inheritor of those traditions and conventions, sort of in the same vein as LA Confidential stands to noir detective films of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
I guess my slight disappointment with the end, then, is that Tell No One doesn’t have the confidence to trust in the intelligence of its audience. But then, I think, the collection of clues, events and actions as presented are almost impossible to piece together into a coherent whole without some directorial assistance. The film does such a good job of keeping its hero – and we the audience – in the dark the entire time, forever dangling out a carrot that distracts him, and us, from any other clues that may or may not be hiding in plain sight, that I doubt any other option is available.
And to its credit, the epic length, long winded explanation - when it finally drops - is not so much a function of “chatty villain syndrome”, but is rather a logical progression of the movement of the rest of the film. It is airtight and almost flawless, and if it feels a bit of a cheat to us, it surely doesn’t to Alexandre, who only wants some sort of closure, some sort of assurance that everything he has endured has at least some sort of reason behind it.
Tell No One is pretty light on extra features. A collection of deleted scenes, running about 35 minutes, are mostly extensions of action in the movie, filling in some of the secondary and tertiary action which was rightly omitted from the film in the first place. Their inclusion would only have padded out an already robust 120-minute run time, and they don’t actually offer anything to help the viewer solve the film on his/her own. The “outtakes” are five minutes of line goofs and bloopers, which are of minimal interest.