“Don’t Say a Word” gives you what you crave.
The pseudo-witty banter; the shriek-prompting surprises; the affirmation of family, hard work and the Law — it’s all there.
Good little Hollywood film. Even pornography isn’t this predictable.
Michael Douglas plays Dr. Nathan Conrad, a brilliant clinical psychiatrist. His newest case involves Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a walking cornucopia of diagnoses. When his daughter is kidnapped by Bad Guys, only his professional talents and personal stamina can save his daughter and new client. We have here the ultimate nightmare of capitalism: work becomes personal. Director Gary Fleder (whose works includes the mediocre “Kiss the Girls”) competently weaves together the requisite dual-narrative lines of family and home, and the scares and thrills guarantee a pleasurable, escapist delight.
But it’s still crap.
We can’t help but wonder what a more talented, less-mainstream director might have done with the interesting mix of psychiatry and cruelty. Darren Aronofsky’s visuals would have sustained the predictable plot; Tarantino would at least have bagged the saccharine kidnapping victim in a gruesome orgy of irony and crayons.
Couldn’t we have been spared the teary family hug at the end? Is it too much to ask for one villain to survive or one hero to die? Is the American public so in need of fairy tales that a modicum of complexity would send them reeling off into existential disenchantment?
I can’t help but wonder why audiences return again and again to see the same story told poorly. It’s certainly a testament to the success of the Hollywood formula: create a conflict, establish time pressure (“You have until 5 pm today!”), resolve that conflict, and reaffirm dominant societal values. These films play on the most cliched spectatorial instincts. “Don’t say a word” is the filmic equivalent of a politician saying “But what about the children!” People lap it up.
While cinema has always been an escapist medium, these mindless blockbusters inevitably proliferate during times of tense reality. Considering the current political situation, expect such bland fare to increase dramatically. No one wants to be provoked in eras of crisis.
So, indeed, people will go to see this film. But if you’re among them, at least examine the motives and messages that you’re so passively taking in.
I’ll begin with the family. The Conrads are perfect. Mother (played by Famke Janssen) is beautiful, young, and doesn’t appear to be either employed or threateningly intelligent. For the duration of the film, her leg is also in a cast. (In an allusion to “Rear Window” that will certainly be lost on the typical audience to this film, she’s trapped in the house when a Bad Guy comes to kill her. Jimmy Stewart clearly didn’t try hard enough — she has no problem standing and beating the man to a pulp with her crutch.)
Daughter is as beautiful as mom, plus she’s polite, smart, and even wins the affection of one of the Bad Guys. Dad is brilliant, a little too old for mom (but that’s OK because he’s Michael Douglas, after all, married to a woman half his age in real life), and knows intuitively how to use a gun when the necessity arises. We’re Americans after all — firearm talents are in our DNA. Or so says Hollywood biology.
The Bad Guys, bless their hearts, are equally approachable. Nothing too shocking or challenging here: we have the cliched trio of a nondescript European foreigner (whose Everyman status seems to be indicated by his alternation between a German and Irish accent); a long-haired, tattooed hippie; and a black man. Thank you Mr. Screenwriter: we already suspected that Those People were evil.
Our cop is the perfect amalgamation of every stereotype about women in the male world of law enforcement: the sexy leather jacket, the ball-breaking bitchiness, the hysterical lack of control when confronted with frustration, and the soft cooing of “honey” and “baby” when her boyfriend calls her cell phone. We’re talking extremely enlightened character portrayals here.
And finally, our madwoman. No Ophelias here. Though sloshing with psychotropic drugs, Elisabeth, it turns out, is faking her many madnesses to protect herself from, who else, the Bad Guys. Mental illness has never been so glibly dismissed. “Don’t Say a Word” is not another “Silence of the Lambs”: this film’s psychology is Hollywood bull. Although the great Dr. Conrad believes her post-traumatic stress is real (from seeing her father die years ago at the hands of — do you see a pattern here?), he’s more than willing to abandon professional ethics and recreate her trauma in an effort to “cure” her quickly and save his daughter.
Though Dr. Conrad is the voice of scientific authority in the film — a patriarchal figure Americans just love to idolize — his science appears to be nothing more than yelling at his patient and intoning titillating phrases like “manic depression.” He’s a sadist in science’s uniform — the worst kind. Is this what we fear from our doctors or what we want from them?
And are these the sort of men we should glorify? Macho tough-guys who delight in high-stakes cat and mouse games with soulless criminals? The one truly terrifying moment in the film is when Douglas calls the kidnappers’ bluff, risking his daughter’s life in the process. It betrays a great flaw in American society that our heroes are more moxie than morals. It is the great flaw of this film that such mainstream values are so happily and blindly sutured into the narrative.
We meet Dr. Conrad as he is lecturing a young male client on Freud. Fine. If we’re going to talk Freud, let’s talk Freud. Sigmund wrote about the repetition compulsion, the need to repeat over and over the cycle from excitation to repose, such as from sleep to wake, desire to orgasm, etc. But repetition compulsion is the tendency of an instinct, which according to Freud, is characterized by being conservative and regressive — precisely the features at play in the Hollywood formula.
So go see the damn film already. Enjoy the conservative, regressive, repetitive narrative. Soak in the satisfying journey from excitement to repose as you’ve done time and time before.
But realize that in doing so, you’re indulging the very lowest aspect of your human nature. Shame on you.