`Word' says more than your average thriller
By JUDE SEYMOUR
Scene Movie Critic
Movies within the kidnapping genre often try to play up tension while their plots meander in predictability and their endings gleam with happiness. The genre is limited by two of Hollywood's oldest conventions: The kidnappers must be brought to justice and there needs to be a resolution.
"Don't Say A Word," the new Michael Douglas thriller, recycles the plot of Mel Gibson's 1996 film "Ransom," a movie for which it was easy to blame the constraints of the genre. However, "Word" will impress many audience members as it reinvigorates the tired ransom plot, adding multiple sub-plots and creative situations to, of course, bring the kidnappers to justice.
Douglas plays Dr. Nathan Conrad, a psychiatrist who must pry a specific location from the memory of a catatonic patient in his old ward. Dr. Conrad aims to exchange that information for the retrieval of his young daughter, who has been kidnapped by a group of criminal masterminds lead by Patrick Koster (Sean Bean, "Patriot Games").
The patient, Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy, "Clueless") is coping with post traumatic stress disorder and is blocking Dr. Conrad's attempts to elicit the information from her memory. To make a difficult situation almost impossible, Conrad has eight hours to retrieve the number before the kidnappers kill his daughter.
In "Word," Douglas seems to have combined two of his more recent roles into one performance. His tough-edged, sometimes maniacal attitude from "Traffic" is blended with the softer sensibilities of his character from "Wonder Boys."
This is seen especially in his playful interaction with his 8-year old daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak). Douglas' performance is convincing even in these tiny moments — if only every child could experience the loving parental nature of Nathan Conrad.
Indeed, Douglas' performance is the catalyst for "Don't Say a Word," which plays much like a detective story.
Conrad has been thrust unwillingly into the role of an investigator. He may have the academic intelligence of a Sherlock Holmes, but his deductions about the clues are coming far too slow for his 5 p.m. deadline.
This is the film's first twist from the typically hackneyed kidnapping plot. While "Ransom" tried to focus on the psychological strategies of the Gibson character, "Don't Say a Word" pits Douglas as a willing participant in the kidnappers' game. But tension exists because Dr. Conrad is just no good at playing it.
For two hours, "Word's" detective story grips the audience, creating nervous anticipatory moments and suspenseful chase sequences.
However, director Gary Felder is apparently unsatisfied, adding two additional subplots to his sleek visuals.
These subplots involve Conrad's impaired wife (Famke Janssen, "X-Men"), who broke her leg in a skiing accident, and a bright New York City cop (Jennifer Esposito, "Summer of Sam"), whose excessive search for clues in her own case leads her unknowingly into the kidnappers' scheme.
Both the main plot and these two subplots are fortunately well written. The audience never has the chance to drop out of the action, keeping the pacing of the movie very fluid.
"Don't Say a Word," like most movies in the kidnapping genre, requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. The movie ignores practicality, instead focusing on producing greater tension.
If audiences can accept the parameters of the "rules" established by the film, then they will easily find themselves caught up in one of the better-written thrillers of the year.--Three and a half shamrocks (out of five)
Contact Jude Seymour at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, October 4, 2001