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Don't Say a Word

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

(20th Century Fox; 2001)

Shut Up!

“I’llll never tellllll.” So goes the sing-songy line that poor Brittany Murphy must recite repeatedly in the promotional trailers for Don’t Say a Word. And so, it would seem, her character, Elisabeth Burrows, is burdened with bearing the terrible secret that must be found out. You might also gather from the trailer that this character isn’t exactly psychically intact. Indeed, Elisabeth might be schizophrenic, or maybe manic-depressive, or psychotic. At the moment we meet her, locked up in a grimy-gray institution a long way from his Upper West Side apartment, she appears to be catatonic. She’s not responding to stimuli, she’s covered with bruises, scrapes, cuts, and burns, and oh yes, she’s just finished slashing an attendant’s face to ribbons.


But this is only the beginning of Elisabeth’s woes. A few minutes into Gary Fleder’s film, she will come under the care of superdoc Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas), whom his colleague Jerry (Oliver Platt) describes as having a “famous touch with the teens” (read that as you will). Called in by Jerry because the case is so difficult, Nathan agrees to take a look, even though it is the night before Thanksgiving and he’s supposed to be home with the wife and kid. (Now, anyone who’s seen a Michael Douglas movie knows that when he should be home with the wife and kid and is not, trouble is brewing.) In about 20 seconds, Nathan pegs Elisabeth as faking the catatonia but, conceding that she’s severely disturbed, he agrees to stop by again sometime. He’s got to pick up the turkey.


And so, on to the family scene that has become so, well, so familiar in Michael Douglas movies. He’s a great dad to 8-year-old Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak, who is surprisingly good in a hard part—she has to seem alternately adorable, subtle, clever, and incredibly daring, and stand by while the big-footed adults stomp all over the movie). And, naturally, he’s a great husband, all cooey and sweet with wife Aggie (Famke Janssen), who’s grumpy because, following a skiing accident, she’s stuck in bed for the holidays. With her cast in traction and her skimpy top allowing plenty of ogling (by her husband and the bad guys who are show up in force), she’s reduced to literal immobility when the crisis comes.


This involves the kidnapping of Jessie during the night. Poor kid—she’s too young to have seen a Michael Douglas movie and so, has no way of knowing that being his child is definitely a bad idea (see Fatal Attraction, Traffic). The head kidnapper is Patrick Koster (Sean Bean), whom you meet in the film’s very first scene (before the Michael Douglas stuff), stealing a precious red diamond. Patrick is aided in his big score by a squad of multi-culti villains, including the wisecracking, black computer/surveillance whiz, Dolen (Guy Torry) and the none-too-bright muscle-guy with long hair and tattoos (if you close your eyes and open them again, you might almost think you’ve been transported back to Die Hard). Apparently, this squad is really loyal and/or the gem is worth bijillions, because everyone has reassembled ten years after that initial robbery in order to re-find the diamond. Or rather, everyone’s back save one, and that would be Elisabeth’s dad, who stole the damn thing from Patrick, thus incurring his own murder by his former partner, pushed into an oncoming subway train in front of little Elisabeth’s ever-after traumatized eyes. Now, Patrick is eager to retrieve a “6-digit number in her head,” that somehow names the location of the hidden jewel.


Seeing too much is bad for girls (Elisabeth, Aggie, Jessie, another girl who has to identify a corpse down at the morgue), but it’s what the men in this film are all dying to do. On one level, this is a traditional sign of power—seeing everything—but here it’s just overkill. Nathan is unmanned when he can’t see what’s happening; Patrick is in charge because he and his crew set up an unbelievably elaborate surveillance system in the Nathan and Aggie’s apartment (apparently overnight while they were asleep), so they can see her on her bed from multiple angles. At one point, Dolen gets all excited when she looks like she might take off that skimpy top, which gives her all the righteous indignation and audience sympathy she needs when she and Dolen have their showdown. That it’s the black man threatening the incapacitated white woman is, I’m sure, just a coincidence, but it has all kinds of movie-historical resonance, too (namely, Gus), that this movie doesn’t begin to explore, so focused is it on its white guy heroics.


Such focus makes Don’t Say a Word very old-fashioned. Mostly, it tracks Nathan as beset, reluctant, and amazingly resourceful protagonist. His initial (and brief) interactions with Aggie (she wants to call the cops, talk to the guys on the phone, speak to her daughter, and he leaves her whimpering in her cushy bed), give way to his efforts to get through to Elisabeth, who, in the end, needs very little prodding, apparently having been waiting for some kind of daddy to rescue her all this time. When Nathan tells her that he has a little girl in danger, she does her raggedy best to haul that precious number out of the recesses of her damaged mind. But it soon becomes clear that the process of Elisabeth’s damage and recovery don’t matter so much to Nathan, or the film, except as it provides occasions for repeated battered-girl images (Fleder previously directed Kiss the Girls, in which he put Ashley Judd through similar abuses).


Wouldn’t you know, Nathan’s efforts aren’t exactly redoubled by a cop who’s also on the trail, since Cassidy (Jennifer Esposito) is always a few steps behind, so her scenes function as the forensic filler included in all violent thrillers, post-Silence of the Lambs (and now that CBS’s CSI and NBC’s Crossing Jordan are giving theatrical releases a run for their Quincy-money, you know the pressure’s on to deliver the gruesome, grimly abstracted details). Worse, Cassidy has to suffer the snarky comments of anonymous uniforms, warnings of her superiors, and distrust of her fellow detectives, and is apparently working this case involving multiple murders, large guns, ruthless bad guys, trains, boats, and car chases, and high tech gadgetry, all in one day, completely on her own. Whatta gal.


Cassidy’s admirable hard work is mostly ineffective, for the obvious reason that she’s not Michael Douglas. When push comes to shove in Don’t Say a Word, girls Don’t Say a Word and guys say everything that comes into their minds. So, Patrick and Nathan spend a lot of time talking on their cell phones, baiting one another, competing for alpha-maleness, trying hard not to lose their just-at-the-edge tempers, and, in Patrick’s case anyway, admiring his adversary for his nerve and determination. You know, just like in the Die Hards.


In fact, the two girls, Elisabeth and Jessie, actually give the movie what little juice it has. Eventually, they even get in the same room, though they’re still struggling in their separate emotional spaces to maintain some faith in a universe that certainly appears to be beyond anyone’s control—and dad is not exactly helping to allay that appearance, as he postures against Patrick. But by this time, all the corny action-thriller nonsense has long since sapped the film of any energy or sense. You just want it to shut up already.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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