“Don’t Say a Word” is a precision-tooled thriller about the kidnapping of a little girl that has everything it needs except a heart. Constructed, crafted and oiled to be a high-performance narrative machine, this adaptation of Andrew Klavan’s Edgar Award-winning mystery novel generates tension from the get-go, albeit of an increasingly unpleasant variety, on its way to a disappointingly generic climax. Michael Douglas starring in an adult-themed suspenser reps a virtual guarantee of strong middle-range B.O., and there’s no reason for Fox to expect anything different this time out.
The basic elements in Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly’s script — the ruthless (foreign) villain, the endangered upscale family that can get tough when necessary, the father who can bring his particular professional expertise to bear on the crisis at hand, the gritty New York cops whose hustle could in fact endanger the hero’s solo rescue efforts — are pretty familiar. “Ransom” is perhaps the most recent direct forebear, with the same combo of calculated filmmaking expertise and queasiness over child endangerment coming into play.
Eight-minute action opening is devoted to a flawlessly accomplished bank heist in New York City — flawlessly done, that is, until the group’s apparent mastermind is betrayed by an associate who makes off with the object of the safety deposit box break-in, a large red diamond worth $10 million.
Ten years later, high-end Gotham doctor Nathan Conrad (Douglas), who specializes in troubled rich teens, is returning in his SUV to his Upper West Side apartment on Thanksgiving eve when he swings by a psychiatric hospital as a favor to an old colleague, Dr. Louis Sachs (Oliver Platt). On Louis’ hands is an apparently catatonic young lady named Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy), who’s just beaten a man within an inch of his life and needs immediate help if she’s not to be institutionalized permanently. After making a modest breakthrough, Nathan heads home to his waiting wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), who’s bedridden with a broken leg, and clever 8-year-old daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak).
Next morning, however, Nathan and Aggie wake up to every parent’s nightmare: Jessie is missing. Within a moment, they receive a call from the British fellow who came out on the short end of the long-ago robbery, Patrick Koster (Sean Bean), who has set up surveillance to see and overhear everything that goes on in the Conrads’ pad. Nathan’s mission, which he has no choice but to accept if he wants to see Jessie alive again, is to unlock a six-digit mystery number from the impenetrable mind of Elisabeth and deliver it to Patrick by 5 p.m.
Fighting his way through the Thanksgiving Day parade crowds, Nathan breaks into Louis’ files to read up on the emotionally and mentally ravaged girl, who witnessed her father’s murder and has been through 10 different institutions in as many years. As Nathan begins chipping away at Elisabeth’s defenses, things get pretty busy around the hospital for a holiday; Louis unaccountably turns up, and he in turn is visited by the aggressive Detective Cassidy (Jennifer Esposito), who is on the trail of the killer(s) of two seemingly unrelated murder victims.
As often happens in such yarns, kids and wives can become abnormally feisty and resourceful when challenged, and so it is with Jessie and Aggie. While Nathan is off making remarkably quick progress with Elisabeth, bringing her closer to the edge of normalcy in an afternoon than a decade of therapy has managed to do, the closely watched Jessie figures out how to communicate with her mother, who in turn liberates herself from her leg cast in order to fight one of Patrick’s henchmen. This doesn’t go down well with the single-minded Englishman, however, who comes within moments of dispatching Jessie when Nathan talks him into meeting at a remote location where Elisabeth’s unlocked memory promises to lead Patrick to the valuable gem that has eluded him for so long.
That location, Hart’s Island, off of New York, is made to look like a creepy, crawly place, complete with a dilapidated cemetery, straight out of a haunted house movie. Restoration of order comes only after a lot of grave digging, gutsy cat-and-mouse, the far-fetched nick-of-time arrival of the police and a Mexican standoff — followed, presumably, by some well-earned Thanksgiving dinner for the survivors.
Director Gary Fleder, with the help of editors William Steinkamp and Armen Minasian, keeps things cracking so as to ensure against a single lull in the action, and he and cinematographer Amir Mokri have worked out a nicely textured, high-contrast visual style that separates the picture a bit from the standard-issue Hollywood thriller. Tonally and emotionally, however, pic is just as frosty and no more endearing than the helmer’s previous suspensers, “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” and “Kiss the Girls,” which is more of a shortcoming here since you’d like to feel at least a little something for the purportedly close-knit family at the story’s center.
Douglas delivers the growing determination and mental agility the role requires, although there are no deeper levels here beyond professional excellence and parental concern. Thesp’s looks also appear overly made-up and fastidious, creating a vaguely unreal quality. Bean effectively reprises the villainous act he’s done before, and no one else is less than pro.
Pic is nattily appointed in all departments, but from the evidence the hardest-working person on the production was composer Mark Isham, whose ominous, dread-inducing score seems to paper the entire running time.