Skip to main content

Should I Watch..? 'Don't Say a Word' (2001)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Don't Say a Word is a thriller film released in 2001, and it is based on the novel of the same name by Andrew Klavan. Directed by Gary Fleder, the film depicts a psychologist forced into treating a catatonic young woman in order to obtain a mysterious number for a vengeful criminal. The film stars Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Sean Bean, Famke Janssen, Oliver Platt and Skye McCole Bartusiak. The film was released in the US just three weeks after the September 11th attacks and the film was hastily edited beforehand to remove shots of the Twin Towers, replacing them with images of Brooklyn instead. The film received a fairly muted response from critics with the majority of criticism levelled at the film's screenplay and plausibility. The film's box office success may also have been effected by 9/11 as the movie struggled to earn $100 million worldwide.


What's It About?

On the day before Thanksgiving, prominent child psychologist Dr Nathan Conrad is asked by his friend and colleague Dr Louis Sachs for his help on a particularly troubled patient. Elisabeth Burrows has been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder for ten years and has been in an almost catatonic state at the state sanitorium. After introducing himself to her, Nathan doesn't make much progress and so he returns home to his young daughter Jessie and his wife Aggie who is laid up in bed with a serious leg injury.

The next day, Nathan discovers that Jessie has disappeared from their apartment overnight. Before they can contact the police, Nathan receives a phone call from professional criminal Patrick Koster who was recently released from prison. He claims that Elisabeth is not actually insane and is merely pretending in order to stay safely within the sanitorium. He wants Nathan to acquire a number that Elisabeth has memorised, a number which will help Patrick recover a gem that his gang stole ten years earlier before he was double-crossed. And as extra incentive, Patrick has kidnapped Jessie and threatens her life unless Nathan can get through to Elisabeth...


What's to Like?

It's no exaggeration to say that this oft-forgotten thriller has some Hitchcockian elements to it. Douglas' psychologist is thrown into a caper he is ill-equipped to handle, he has a mission that he is singularly adapt at and there is a level of intrigue behind the film's overall premise. What is the number and what does it mean and why would it lead the baddies to the stolen loot? Questions aplenty and while the script ultimately mangles the answers, it gives Don't Say a Word plenty to gumption and pace for the most part.

The cast are solid but rarely spectacular - Douglas feels like he has played this type of role dozens of times before and while Murphy's performance was praised by many, I found it somewhat stereotypical as she rocked backwards and forwards on her knees. I actually have had post traumatic stress disorder in the past and at no point did I ever behave the way her character did. By contrast, Janssen does far better as the invalid laid up at home (again, another Hitchcock nod) while Bartusiak impresses despite her young age and inexperience. The film certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel but it's a well-made and well intended effort, ultimately let down by some key flaws.

Both Douglas and Murphy feel disappointing in the lead roles, allowing co-stars like Janssen and Bartusiak to shine instead.

Both Douglas and Murphy feel disappointing in the lead roles, allowing co-stars like Janssen and Bartusiak to shine instead.

Fun Facts

  • The film is also notable for the tragic and unfortunate passing of two of its leading cast members. Murphy died in 2009 at the age of 32 due to a combination of pneumonia, anemia and accidental drug intoxication while Bartusiak passed away in 2014 aged just 21 due to an accidental drug overdose, possibly related to childhood epilepsy. The pair also starred in the 2001 drama Riding In Cars With Boys.
  • Despite being set in New York, some of the film was shot in Toronto such as the Canal Street subway station which was filmed at an unused subway station, Bay Lower. The Toronto Transport Commission was so impressed that they requested the $150'000 set be left up to attract other film projects. Sadly, it was removed just three weeks later after inspectors deemed the set to be a fire risk.
  • The film's cinematographer, Amir Mokri, appears on screen in a cameo as one of the people Nathan looks at suspiciously when he leaves the apartment. He is changing a lightbulb, something he would likely be doing on set anyway.
Scroll to Continue

What's Not to Like?

It's a shame that Don't Say a Word messes things up as badly as it does. By far the worst thing about the film is the script which is unable to tie everything together or even answer its own questions. For example, how does Patrick know about the mysterious number Elisabeth has in her memory or how it will lead him to his stolen gem? The film never explains this and unfortunately, it gives the game away. Despite the premise sounding good on paper, there is no effort to make it work on screen and with little imagination or real originality evident, the film squanders its promise and settles for being a slightly silly thriller that ultimately fails.

What's annoying is that this perhaps should have been better. Douglas is an experienced actor, Bean is a typically typecast baddie and Fleder, coming off his earlier directorial efforts Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead and the Alex Cross adaptation Kiss The Girls, displays a competent grasp of directing duties here and perhaps needed a hit. Instead, the film remains content to be as unremarkable as possible and no film should ever have this sort of mindset. No wonder it was overshadowed by the tragedy of 9/11 - even if this film did manage to achieve the same level of success that Hitchcock did in his films, I doubt many would remember this movie for that long anyway. It wastes so much potential that the film itself is the real crime here.

Sean Bean is as dependable a bad guy as you can imagine - a pity that he's not given much to do by the ridiculous script

Sean Bean is as dependable a bad guy as you can imagine - a pity that he's not given much to do by the ridiculous script

Should I Watch It?

Few people will lose any sleep if they missed this thriller-filler the first time around. Its idiotic narrative isn't helped by uninterested performers and uninspired direction - it's the very definition of 'solid but not spectacular'. If anything, it's a tragic reminder of the talents of Murphy and Bartusiak who both lost their lives far too soon and were capable of much better films than this. If you're looking for a genuine thriller then look elsewhere, I'm afraid.

Great For: plot-hole spotters, psychologists trying to sex up their job description, anyone who has never seen a thriller before, fans of cheap airport fiction

Not So Great For: fans of thrillers, depictions of mental health sufferers, anyone hoping for a memorable couple of hours

What Else Should I Watch?

It's worth noting that 2001 was a year that saw a trio of thrillers released that did manage to stand out from the crowd and even remain highly watchable to this day. Vanilla Sky is an English-language remake of the 1997 Spanish drama Open Your Eyes and sees Tom Cruise thrust into an odd blend of sci-fi, fantasy, romance and fable. Far better is the trippy and surreal mystery Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's Hollywood-set thriller involving an aspiring actress and an amnesiac woman and is possibly Lynch's best film to date. Equally as confusing was Donnie Darko, an ambitious blend of time-travel, teenage angst and demonic bunnies haunting a young man's dreams. Launching the career of its writer-director Richard Kelly as well as acting siblings Jake & Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film is now regarded as one of the most original films ever made and is still being debated by fans.

Douglas found his career became mired in a number of middling thrillers after his career was revived after the controversial Basic Instinct. With Disclosure attempting to capitalise on the erotic thriller boom of the early Nineties, Douglas often popped up in films like A Perfect Murder and The Sentinel although he was frankly going through the motions at this point. But that's not to say that he has hung up his acting boots just yet - Behind The Candelabra was a well-received biopic featuring Douglas as the flamboyant pianist Liberace while his appearance as Dr Hank Pym in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen him become a staple figure of the Ant-Man series.

Main Cast


Michael Douglas

Dr Nathan R. Conrad

Brittany Murphy

Elisabeth Burrows

Sean Bean

Patrick Koster

Famke Janssen

Agatha 'Aggie' Conrad

Guy Torry


Jennifer Esposito

Detective Sandra Cassidy

Skye McCole Bartusiak

Jessie Conrad

Oliver Platt

Dr Louis Sachs

Technical Info

*based on the novel by Andrew Klavan

DirectorGary Fleder


Anthony Peckham & Patrick Smith Kelly*

Running Time

113 minutes

Release Date (UK)

22nd February, 2002




Crime, Mystery, Thriller

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

Related Articles