- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001



"Don't Say a Word" wallows in deplorably gratuitous sensationalism, but it looms as an intriguing test case at the box office. Will this grotesque exercise in menace and brutality, a suspense thriller starring Michael Douglas as a psychoanalyst coerced into cooperating with the vicious robbery gang that has kidnapped his young daughter, enjoy a friendly reception in the wake of Sept. 11?

I hope not. Indeed, I hope that everything it represents in the way of thriller formulation and execution will now be subject to mass avoidance. "Don't Say" deserves to encounter withering word of mouth. It looks as expendable as the bustle or buggy whip.

Director Gary Fleder seems intent on lashing the audience from one desperately sadistic, miscalculated episode to the next. Unless I miss my guess, thrillers will need to go about their business less aggressively and moronically for a while. The restraint that distinguishes such low-key thrillers as "The Others" and "The Deep End" may become useful even to the sledgehammer hacks, who have grown accustomed to treating every sequence with the subtlety of a mugging.

"Don't Say" targets an upper West Side domestic haven. Mr. Douglas' character, called Nathan Conrad, shares a spacious apartment at the Ansonia Hotel with spouse Aggie (Famke Janssen), recovering from a broken leg, and their winsome little girl Jessie (Skye McCole-Bartusiak, 8).

An explosive prologue reveals that a deadly bank caper went awry for a gang of thieves 10 years earlier. Somewhat preposterously, they have resurfaced in the present, under the smugly intimidating leadership of Sean Bean. Recently paroled from Attica and elaborately bankrolled, they are determined to retrieve a mislaid precious gem, supposedly worth $10 million. Given the expenditure on vehicles and surveillance equipment necessary to infiltrate the Ansonia and place Conrad in their clutches, the gang appears to require a silent backer willing to spend through the nose for start-up costs. Perhaps he takes a lavish sporting interest in crime, such as Hollywood itself.

Jessie is abducted to compel Conrad to probe the unconscious of a mental patient called Lizzie Burrows (Brittany Murphy, my least favorite new ingenue, recently cast as the small-town slut in "Summer Catch"). The gang has reason to believe that her clouded memory conceals the whereabouts of their lost bauble. In addition to planting surveillance devices in the Conrad apartment, the gang has a conference room at the asylum conveniently monitored. This stealth supposedly lowers to virtual zero the hero's chances of resistance.

Simultaneously but absent-mindedly, the filmmakers keep tabs on a subplot that deploys Jennifer Esposito as a homicide detective with attitude named Cassidy. She logs generous morgue time while investigating murders that eventually lead to the tormentors of Lizzie and the Conrads. A main-event showdown is reserved for a cemetery on Hart Island, located in Long Island Sound between the Bronx and Port Washington.

Getting there transforms Conrad into a belated and rather hilarious hard-charger. More often than not, Mr. Douglas is hamstrung by one of his fundamentally weak-willed, compromised character types, reminiscent of the philandering hubby in "Fatal Attraction." While he can't be cited for infidelity as Conrad, the hero does seem a defective free-lancer when faced with peril and intimidation. Despite having her gam in a sling, Miss Janssen gets to retaliate more effectively, throttling a gang member with a crutch. Not satisfied with that emphatic gesture, Mr. Fleder returns a bit later for a redundant grapple-and-wallop session between the same contestants.

Cassidy is meant to be mistaken for a dish who can dish it out by definition. There's one pricelessly silly take on Hart Island where she appears to do a half-hearted swoon, allowing Mr. Douglas to settle Mr. Bean's hash once and for all. Not that anything happens in a Gary Fleder movie in a believable or decisive way. The fadeout may trivialize all the mayhem and suffering by injecting goofy sources of speculation. It suggests that Conrad may intend to adopt Lizzie, a heartfelt gesture that could crowd things a bit at the Ansonia.

Like "Glitter," which teemed with fleeting transitional shots of the New York City skyline, "Don't Say" plays hide-and-seek with random shots of the World Trade Center, but the skittishness of the visualization is especially unfortunate right now.

Inevitably, you tend to look for the missing landmarks, and you're not certain if they've been digitally effaced from certain angles.

It's yet another reminder that Hollywood is going to lag months behind all the other pictorial media in recognizing a colossal national catastrophe.

Swearing off New York-based thrillers as wretched and foolish as "Don't Say a Word" would be a suitable way of showing respect for the landmarks lost on Sept. 11.

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