American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Don't Say a Word'' is one of those movies where a happy professional couple suddenly find their lives threatened by depraved outsiders. Like airline owner Mel Gibson in "Ransom" and Dr. Harrison Ford in "Frantic" psychiatrist Michael Douglas has to discover if he possesses the basic instincts to fight to the death for the ones he loves.
The movie turns this into a race against the clock when kidnappers take his 8-year-old daughter and give him a 5 p.m. deadline. To do what? To pry a six-digit number from the memory of a mental patient. And that's not all. For the second half of the movie, there are four parallel plots, involving Douglas working over the patient, his wife struggling to defend herself with her leg in a cast, his daughter trying to outsmart the kidnappers and a woman detective stumbling over the crime during a related investigation.
Plotting this dense is its own reward. We cast loose from the shores of plausibility and are tossed by the waves of contrivance. I like thrillers better when they put believable characters in possible situations ("The Deep End" with Tilda Swinton, was accused of implausibility but is cinema verite compared to this). But I also have a sneaky affection for Douglas thrillers where he starts out as a sleek, rich businessman and ends up with an ax in his hand. Who else can start out so well-groomed and end up as such a mad dog? The movie was directed by Gary Fleder, whose "Kiss The Girls" (1997) was taut and stylish. Here again he shows a poetic visual touch, cutting between cozy domestic interiors and action scenes shot in gritty grays and blues. The look of his pictures shows the touch of an artist, and he has a fondness for character quirks that flavors the material. Consider Douglas' fellow psychiatrist, played by Oliver Platt, who has his own reasons for immediate results.
The bank robbery opening the movie is recycled from countless similar scenes, but then the movie makes a twist and the plot keeps piling it on. What's remarkable is how certain performances, especially Brittany Murphy's as the mental patient and Sky McCole Bartusiak's as the kidnapped girl, find their own rhythm and truth in the middle of all that urgency.