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Can't Buy a Thrill

Don't Say a Word has the budget, but not the brains, to chill us

Murphy, on the other hand, could have held this thing together, had her character not been drawn so broadly and given so little to do. There are some compelling details accentuating Elisabeth's troubled psyche -- her ultra-high IQ, her gift for adopting other patients' neuroses -- but ultimately she's here to shiver and shake and let Conrad save her. We know she'll prevail just as we know that Bean's equally facile villain will take his fall. Were there some ambiguity, some doubt, this exercise could have been both fearful and touching. Instead, barring a little twist in a minor character, this line goes from A to B with no detours.

It is worth mentioning, however, that this well-worn track is tricked out with a few oddities and technical trappings to draw us even further out of the story. Of the former, consider the film's genuinely strange antagonism toward minorities. While it's mildly annoying to witness the "token black" phenomenon in predominantly white movies, here the only two African-American characters are substantially abused, one beaten bloody and stabbed to death, the other unceremoniously pumped full of sedatives, both actions courtesy of our "heroes." We also have to wonder who Conrad thinks he is to steal an Asian man's cell phone for a laugh. Even Esposito's cop goes down in pain.

This is by far the most troubling aspect of the movie: its shamelessly formulaic design. Although there are reasons to like the villain (Koster declares his hatred for football) and to loathe the protagonist (witness Conrad ramming his Range Rover through traffic), there are many more elements thrown in simply -- even aggressively -- to hook the general viewing audience. By littering the movie with pop iconography and intermittent teases of sexuality, the filmmakers seem desperate to win and sustain our attention. But isn't that what the plot is for?

Damsel in distress: Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy) is basically supposed to shiver and shake until Conrad (Michael Douglas) saves her.
Ava Gerlitz
Damsel in distress: Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy) is basically supposed to shiver and shake until Conrad (Michael Douglas) saves her.

It takes brave and imaginative people to craft a modern thriller that thrills, a Silence of the Lambs, a Professional, a Sixth Sense. It takes darkly alluring ideas, a taste of ambivalence. What we have here is a mad dash toward the obvious, in which the leads look irritated and the extras look tired. During the climax, when Koster lingers upon a detail to reflect, "Can you imagine what will happen if this is bullshit?" a thousand answers come to mind, all of them more enticing than the pat mush that we actually get. Apparently there just aren't many thrills to be wrung from the hands of paranoiacs.

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