Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tell No One

By Elise Nakhnikian

The vertigo you get from watching footage shot with a shaky handheld camera is such a cliché that it literally makes me feel a little sick. But Tell No One, a beautifully executed old-fashioned murder mystery, rejuvenates even that tired convention.

An everyday hero caught in a Hitchcockian maze mined with deadly traps, Alex Beck (François Cluzet) is relentlessly focused on solving the mystery of his beloved wife’s death – and clearing himself of the murder rap someone is trying to pin on him. A man of deeply felt but closely held emotions, he doesn’t have a moment to waste on self-pity or panic. So when the camera starts to shake during two or three moments of particularly high stress, it’s not just a gimmick: It’s a highly effective way of delivering a jolt of the emotion he’s working so hard to suppress.

That’s typical of the intelligence and artistry that forged this gem of a thriller. It’s also a reminder of something that’s true of all movies, but especially genre films: What matters is not so much what story you tell as how you tell it.

Tell No One opens as Alex relaxes after a booze-soaked dinner with his wife, Margot; his sister, Anne, and Anne’s partner, Hélène. The grown-ups talk and laugh; Hélène rolls a joint; Alex plays with Hélène and Anne’s baby; Margot watches him with a little half-smile. Director, co-screenwriter and co-cinematographer Guillaume Canet says he told the actors to improvise because they were having trouble with the lines. Whatever he did, it worked, doing enough in one brief scene to make us feel Alex’s loss, later that night, when Margot is killed at the lake where they have swum together since childhood.

Flash forward to eight years later. Two bodies have been found at the lake, so the case is reopened – along with a number of long-buried questions. The cops, who had suspected Alex of having killed his wife before pinning the murder on a serial killer, get suspicious all over again. Meanwhile, he begins to believe that she’s still alive but hiding, though he doesn’t know where or why.

Canet is best known in his native France as an actor, though his first feature as a director, My Idol (2002), was nominated for two Césars. He says he was attracted to Tell No One, a novel by Newark native Harlan Coben, because “It contained many strong characters, which was perfect for me because I have a particular weakness: each time I meet an actor or actress I like, I want to work with them.”

And boy, does he ever work with them. Cluzet, who’s on screen for practically the entire movie, is a revelation, reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, though a few years older. A regular guy (Alex is a pediatrician) with regular flaws (his temper can be downright scary), he proves capable of near-heroic ingenuity and toughness without ever seeming superhuman. The fact that Alex sometimes falls down only ups the ante when he’s on the run.

One heart-pounding chase conducted entirely on foot, in which he threads himself between speeding cars on a freeway, is the best I’ve seen all year, partly because it’s so well edited but also because it feels so real that the risks really count.

Marie-Josée Croze’s Margot has a slightly haunted look that makes her feel a bit absent even when she’s onscreen, yet her presence imbues the movie even when she’s not in it. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a strong, unusually loose performance as Hélène, and Jean Rochefort is magisterially icy as Gilbert Neuville, a multimillionaire whose name keeps surfacing (Canet plays his sociopathic son).

Also mesmerizing are vivid minor characters like Alex’s tightly wound, hotshot lawyer, played by Nathalie Baye, and the female mercenary (this is a movie full of interesting and unconventional female characters) who tortures and kills with deadly, near-silent efficiency. When this pain-generating machine is shot point blank, she just walks away and we watch with dread, half-convinced she could survive even a bullet to the heart.

The story was originally set in New York City, but it transposes surprisingly well to Paris – though it does seem a bit odd that Margot’s death is attributed to a serial killer. The Bronx of the book becomes a hardscrabble banlieue in the movie, where Alex holes up with a grateful patient named Bruno, and the tour we get of Paris, from the high-society perch of Neuville’s horse shows to the seedy back alleys of Bruno’s neighborhood, adds to the movie’s appeal.

Despite all the characters and the constantly mutating plot, we never get lost, in part because so much is conveyed without words. Funny moments relieve the tension and artfully planted red herrings add texture and suspense while the fast-flowing plot keeps your nerves humming at a pleasurable level of dread. And somewhat miraculously, especially since there isn’t a moment of tiresome exposition, every loose end is tied up – after one final twist just before the end credits.

They don’t make suspense thrillers any better than this. In fact, if you could just lop off that saccharine (but mercifully short-lived) coda at the end, this might just be a perfect movie.

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