Don’t Say A Word is a first-rate thriller of the old-fashioned kind (think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) with homage to recent hits (think Ron Howard’s Ransom). From the moment the film’s kidnapping starts, and an ordinary man (Michael Douglas Traffic) is forced into extraordinary acts, Word races on a relentless single-minded track of terror. Don’t look for any Die Hard joking to relieve the anxiety here. You’ll only stop gripping your seat is when the lights come up. Director Gary Fleder earned his thriller stripes in TV’s Tales from the Crypt and 1997’s diabolical feature Kiss the Girls. He imbues every element of Word with a malevolently gritty subtext, as if he intimately knows New York City’s dark underbelly. Tall buildings aren’t towers to be blown up, but they are fortresses built on treacherous sand. Although the world of the film is replete with uniformed desk clerks and gated parking, evil can still cut through apartment-door safety chains and unleash nightmares. Fleder’s city is a distorted house of mirrors where holiday parades become life-threatening obstacles, dedicated doctors are betrayers and islands off the coast aren’t vacation spots but horrifying repositories of dead “John Does.” All of which is underscored, literally, by Mark Isham’s eerie original music. The script (screen-credited to two writers but known to have a slew of others) is based on a page-turner of the same name by Andrew Klavan. Douglas plays Dr. Nathan Conrad, a brilliant child psychologist, securely ensconced in his $200/hour uptown practice, happily married to spunky writer Aggie (Fanke Janssen, X-Men) and thrilled with late-life parenthood thanks to his adorable daughter (Skye McCole Bartusiak, The Patriot). At the request of his colleague (Oliver Platt, Ready to Rumble), Conrad agrees to see severely catatonic mental-hospital patient, 18-year old Brittany Murphy (Clueless), whose life-long silence holds terrible secrets. Jewel-thief Sean Bean (Patriot Games) masterminds the cruel kidnapping of Conrad’s child and sets the rules: Conrad must unlock the secret in the teenager’s walled-off mind in seven hours, or his daughter will be killed. In his desperation, Conrad defies all logic and calls on reserves of courage and cunning he never knew existed, all the while knowing that when he delivers the information to the kidnappers, they plan to kill his daughter and himself anyway. Meanwhile a gutsy homicide detective (Jennifer Esposito, The Proposal) doggedly pursues leads in a series of seemingly unrelated homicides. The two stories crisscross and intercut (guaranteed Oscar nomination for editing) in almost unbearable tension until they meet head-on in a macabre, unforgettable climax. For reasons inexplicable to me, Don’t Say A Word is another terrific movie that big-city critics have panned. If the reaction of the packed house on Saturday night at the Asheville theater is any indication, word of mouth will keep Word on the screens for months.
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