A formulaic but confusing suspense film, "Don't Say a Word" centers on not just any day in the life of psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas).
The day before Thanksgiving, Conrad's taking on of pro bono mental patient Elizabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy) leads to the kidnapping of Conrad's daughter (Skye McCole Bartusiak).
Thus, it's 10 a.m., and Dr. Nathan Conrad has until 5 p.m. to coerce a six-digit number from the mind of a mental patient, prove himself to some extremely angry jewel thieves and murderers, save his only daughter and still make it home for Thanksgiving dinner.
"Don't Say a Word" espouses a typical design throughout, which includes a holiday theme a la "Batman Returns." But the clarity of the performances of many of the characters, along with the occasionally intriguing cinematography, recovers the film from the mundane.
Douglas delivers with poise; the psychiatrist in him emerges beautifully throughout the film as he attempts to win the trust of Burrows, who has spent 10 years of her life in mental facilities.
But the shining performance of the film is that of Murphy ("Clueless"). Through ringed eyes and constant contorting, Murphy perfects Burrows, whose deep-set agonies stem from witnessing her father's traumatic death in a subway accident when she was only 8 years old.
Burrows leaves the viewer eerily disturbed yet attached. With one of her high-pitched "I'll never tell..." yelps, Burrows takes charge of the film, and the other characters, even Douglas, become side players.
What emerge as the most notable aspects of this film are its quieter moments -- director Gary Fleder captures bits of humanity in scenes like those where Jessie Conrad, the kidnapped 8-year-old girl, attempts to converse with her captors.
Among such scenes are those between Burrows and Jessie. The nostalgia with which Burrows eyes the child illustrates how Jessie represents what Burrows was before the dramatic death of her own father. Simultaneous contrast and continuity between these two is one of the most captivating features of the film.
Though not a must-see film, "Don't Say a Word," stands above the rest of the genre. Murphy's performance, as well as her interactions with other characters, contributes an unexpected complexity and depth to a film that could otherwise have been standard.
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.