Don't Say a Word (2001)

by Renee Scolaro Rathke


Need I Say More?

Michael Douglas’s latest film, Don’t Say a Word, is painfully and transparently about, well, him. This kidnapping thriller, with its weak plot and underdeveloped supporting characters, amounts to little more than a Michael Douglas showcase. But the effort to make his Nathan Conrad a doting family man seems desperate, and he looks like he’s trying too hard. While we might be more forgiving of such blatant self-promotion if there were a strong storyline, Don’t Say a Word doesn’t offer much in this regard. Sadly, the most intriguing aspect of the film is how it produces Douglas’s character and image, which is, at the expense of every woman character.

My question is, what does it mean when a film empowers its male lead by surrounding him with incapacitated, victimized, traumatized or otherwise useless women? The question that Don’t Say a Word ostensibly poses is, to what lengths will men go to get what they want, or more specifically, what they regard as theirs?

cover art

Don't Say a Word

Director: Gary Fleder
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Famke Janssen, Brittany Murphy, Jennifer Esposito

(20th Century Fox)

The film opens in 1991 in New York. A gang of thieves, led by Patrick Koster (Sean Bean), breaks into a bank to steal a rare red diamond worth $10 million. The robbery goes off a hitch, until Koster is double-crossed by one of his cohorts. Cut to 10 years later: Koster kidnaps the 8-year-old daughter of respected child psychiatrist Nathan Conrad (Douglas) and gives him about 8 hours to coax catatonic teen Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy—she and Bean are the film’s only highlights) to give up a six digit number she’s got locked away in her mind. Turns out that Elisabeth is the daughter of the double-crosser whom Koster hunted down and killed right in front of her 10 years earlier. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Elisabeth has spent those 10 years in 20 different mental institutions, hiding from Koster, who knows she holds the secret to the red diamond’s location.

There’s never any real doubt about the film’s resolution, so the only tension comes between good guy Douglas and bad guy Bean. They are seeming opposites morally, but both are willing to do whatever it takes (lie, steal, kill) to get back what’s theirs. “You aren’t like me,” Koster taunts Conrad towards the film’s end, “I would have killed the man that took my daughter.” When the tables turn a few scenes later, Conrad responds, in his best “You pushed me too far now!” voice, “Are you sure I’m not like you?” Yeah, we’re sure. The film has spent so much time laboring to convince us of Conrad’s goodie-two-shoesness that it can’t possibly allow for more than accidental gratification of his urge for revenge.

And this brings us back to the trying-too-hard thing. It can’t all be blamed on Douglas’s performance. After all, he didn’t write the script (Patrick Smith Kelly did, based on Andrew Klavan’s novel), and Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Things to Denver When You’re Dead) did the directing. But the portrayal of Conrad (and by extension, Douglas) as brilliant professional, doting father, and loving husband is less convincing than it is annoying. (Before the opening credits finished rolling, someone sitting near me in the theatre mumbled, “I hate him already!”) Early on, we must endure pointless scenes, as Conrad picks up the Thanksgiving turkey, gives his injured wife Aggie (Famke Janssen) a spongebath (a truly cringe-worthy moment), and fixes a big Thanksgiving breakfast. Another montage scene shows Conrad diagnosing Elisabeth: a decade’s worth of mental health professionals couldn’t figure her out, but according to the clock on his office wall, he does it in 40 minutes. Wow. That is impressive.

Other character-establishing moments are just frustrating. Conrad’s interactions with his daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak), showing him as a fabulously devoted dad, are incredibly sappy. I suppose that’s fine; she’s only eight, after all. But she’s also intelligent and clever, so her dad’s simpering tone works to dismiss her as “cute.” Conrad speaks to his patient Elisabeth and Aggie in exactly the same tone of voice, condescending and infantilizing. Perhaps the intent is to reinforce his fatherly image for the orphaned Elisabeth, but it’s creepy that he acts the same way towards his wife.

As if aware that its efforts to establish Conrad through action and language fall short, the film positions its female characters in a way that can leave no doubt that Conrad is the man in charge, the only one capable of handling any situation that arises. Amazingly, every woman in Don’t Say a Word is in some way incapacitated: Aggie has a broken leg and is in traction; Jessie is held hostage; Elisabeth is mentally crushed by PTSD; and Detective Sandra Cassidy (Jennifer Esposito) is utterly irrelevant to the central plot, and is eventually shot. The rest of the women in the film are dead. All of these women (except the dead ones, of course) assert themselves at some point, but never to much fruition. Aggie kills one of the kidnappers, but then she waits around crying, while Conrad does the important work of rescuing their daughter.

It is all about Douglas. Like Nathan Conrad, he is the only person who can really shine in the film. Bean and Murphy, though great, have woefully short times on screen, serving as foils for his star turn. Perhaps he’s out a non-romantic lead image, here a protective-father-savior figure (we saw him play a similar character in last year’s Traffic). Such regeneration is nothing new and is often very successful, though it’s usually associated with women actors (think of Susan Sarandon’s recent, endless stream of mother roles, a far cry from her sexy Bull Durham or White Palace days). Unfortunately for Douglas, this script is so weak and his character so contrived, that the result is merely embarrassing.

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