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Don't Say A Word

Fox // R // February 19, 2002
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted January 29, 2002 | E-mail the Author

When Larry King calls Don't Say a Word "the thriller to end all thrillers" is he saying it's good or that it is the final nail in the coffin of a tired genre? I'm all for nail-biting suspense but so many filmmakers have worshiped at the alter of Hitchcock that it's starting to lose its meaning. Gary Fleder's Don't Say a Word is a jumbled mish-mash of quick-cut action scenes, pop-psych motivations, and too many hastily-drawn characters.

When Fleder claims to be a Hitchcock afficionado he seems to be mistaking fanboyship with actual influence. (Plus, he's also ignoring the fact that Spellbound, Hitchcock's foray into the psychology thriller, is one of the master's least interesting films.) His chops seem to come more from the David Fincher school of TV commercial filmmaking. Like Antoine Fuqua and Simon West, Fleder has adopted Fincher's cool tinted music video style without a sense of that director's developing kinkiness and thematic experimentation.

The plot of Don't Say a Word (based on a novel of the same name) is a few notches below Fleder's sense of self-importance. In fact, it's typical Lifetime melodrama (regular readers know that I'm no Lifetime hater): Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas), playing another rich super husband/dad, has to administer his brain shrinkage to Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a violently troubled teen before some thugs (lead by Sean Bean) kill his daughter. The thugs want a number that only Elisabeth knows. (the fallacy of the title, which suggests some sort of child abuse secret, is that the information not being told is self-created, rather than being forced on the girl. In other words, no one is actually demanding that she not say a word.)

In his race against the clock, Dr. Conrad has to keep the whole situation a secret from the cops. The film boasts a number of half-baked subplots (a thread about a plucky detective (Jennifer Esposito) really could have been left on the cutting room floor) that end up detracting from the pacing and suspense. A number of scenes that are supposed to play as tense montages end up cluttered with shots of uninteresting side-stories. Famke Janssen plays Douglas' daughter... I mean wife, in a role that requires her to mostly lie in bed with a big fat cast on her leg looking concerned. This sort of pandering makes the film look manipulative in an obvious way. The entire premise strains to build tension: Child endangerment is a short cut to most people's heartstrings. But taking shortcuts doesn't guarantee results.

Still, it seems that the film takes shortcuts along the way. Douglas launches into rescue-dad mode so quickly that his emotional turmoil is downplayed. Dr. Conrad's colleague (the sturdy Oliver Platt) has his own drama, although it is left a little murky and is given no resolution. The ending of the film is so typically Hollywood that, even if you had been drawn in by the premise, you would feel cheated. For a film that supposedly approaches the thriller genre from a psychological perspective the ending is sadly simple minded.

The anamorphic video is near perfect. The print is clean, the image is sharp, the complex color pallette is reproduced faithfully. This is the sort of transfer that should be expected from new releases and, even though the movie is lacking in some thematic concerns, it was obviously crewed by pros.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is dynamic and has good, strong bass. It's a very nicely produced track. The DTS track, on the other hand, seemed less exciting to my ear, which is strange since I usually detect a slight bit of extra oomph in DTS. Still, either track is fine. The disc loses a point, however, for disabling on-the-fly audio track switching.

A Spanish 2.0 track is also available, as are English subtitles.

A quick note about Mark Isham's score: It's one of the laziest pieces of composition to appear in a film for some time. From the drum beats during the "action" scenes to the guitar squeals and somber mood music, Isham's work is not up to the level of competency of the other technicians involved. And to think, a score album is available.

An extraordinary selection of extras has been included with this very ordinary film. Director Gary Fleder's commentary is the typical film school grad self-congratulation, although his discussion of the post- 9/11 mood and its effect on the release of the film is something new. The film was released in late September and must have been more or less out of theaters by October 12th, when the commentary was recorded, giving lie to Fleder's comments about its having been a big hit.

The packaging also lists "scene specific commentaries by Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Brittany Murphy, Famke Janssen, and Oliver Platt", but the copy writer must not have understood what that means. In this case "scene specific" means that each actor's commentary only accompanies a specific scene. So, each track is accessible with its own little snippet of the movie. Not necessarily a bad feature but a far cry from the raucous group commentary suggested by the copy.

Many of the behind the scenes extras are lumped together in a section called "Cinema Master's Class," which I guess is to feed into the whole "Buying a DVD is the same thing as going to film school!" lie that magazines like Entertainment Weekly always spread. The material here is not bad but to call it educational is a stretch. A selection of dailies (unedited footage of the previous day's work) shows a scene from every angle in unedited chunks which can be compared to the final edit of that scene (ambitious viewer might want to digitize the dailies and cut their own version of the scene).

An interview with producers Arnold Kopelson and his bizarre transvestite-like wife Anne illustrate why producers are known to be pompous and insufferable, while additional interviews with Fleder really start to cause Fleder-fatigue.

A "making of" segment is pure EPK hocum while some more in depth segments on the film's production design, score, special effects, and storyboards are of a little more interest.

Possibly the best extra is Brittany Murphy's screen test, shot on film with a set and makeup for the young actress. Since this is only a screen test it consists of a single camera aimed at the actress. It suggests that the film, minus Fleder's incessant cutting and jumpiness, might have had a much creepier tone.

Bios and a cheesy ad for the DVD of Douglas' Wall Street round out the section.

I don't want to be too hard on Don't Say a Word. There is nothing extraordinarily bad about it. The story and characters are run of the mill for today's derivative thrillers and the pacing is off. The thing that hurts the film is that the lavish treatment on this DVD backfires. Had the film been released in a simple edition it wouldn't have drawn attention to itself. By allowing the film's creators to wax on about how great the movie is and how wonderful all of the components are they only help point out how ordinary it really is.

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