Tell No One
French, with English subtitles
Starring François Cluzet, André Dussollier, Marie-Josée Croze
Directed by Guillaume Canet
It’s amazing how easily Harlan Coben’s tale of a charity-minded pediatrician in Manhattan who gets pulled into the seedy underbelly of society (as well as the even seedier world of wealth and absolute power) translates into the French.
Both Coben’s Manhattan-based crime novel and the Paris-based film adapted from it tell the tale of Dr. Alex Beck (François Cluzet), who is recovering, physically and emotionally, from the apparent murder of his wife, Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) on his family estate.
It’s a nightmarish scene: a playful skinny dip in the lake after dark, an argument, the wife wandering off in a huff into the woods while he waits on the raft, a scream, a brief flash of her running, him swimming to shore to help her, and then he’s knocked unconscious.
And for eight years after, he has been asking himself: What happened?
When more bodies later appear in the very same area, however, he is not only questioned by police as a prime suspect, but also begins receiving cryptic, impossible e-mail messages from someone who may well be his wife: the same wife who was supposed to be long dead.
The film, like the book before, is a thrill ride. The protagonist, knowing himself to be innocent, is nonetheless pursued by police. Running makes him look guilty, but surrendering sacrifices the opportunity to clear his name and at long last learn whether his wife is still alive: classic film noir stuff there.
He finds refuge, of a sort, with the assistance of an underworld figure who helps him (because he, being the good doctor with a heart for the downtrodden, saved the life of his son). There are nasty men aplenty to worry about in the bad part of town but even nastier men are looking to silence him on orders from those in far higher places.
It’s one of those multi-layered tales of intrigue that can be hard enough to keep straight without the subtitles, but that’s the beauty of it. Eventually you just have to surrender to the same delirium the characters on screen are in.
The plot twists on safe deposit boxes, surveillance cameras, sudden attacks, torture, and desperate chase scenes, leading ever deeper into a strange and uncomfortable place.
Directed by Guillaume Canet, Tell No One is a critically acclaimed crime drama with both brains and brutality. It presents society as a sort of thin skin from which any of us can be randomly plucked and placed in a far uglier terrain where rules cease to apply.
In that, it’s somewhat reminiscent of The Departed, starring Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Both feature intelligent men caught up in a world where intelligence had better be coupled to a willingness to cause harm without blinking. And both present graphically, without apology, exactly what fists and bullets do.
The vast majority of us, in the middle economic and social terrain, play by the rules day by day, while at the very top and very bottom others move about far more freely. That’s the take-home message.
Attorneys, thugs, billionaires, police inspectors, and psychopaths: who among them will help the doctor find the truth and who will hand him over to his death? That’s the undercurrent that keeps the story sizzling along — when the ordinary rules of the social contract fall apart, all that’s left are instincts and alliances against common foes.
That’s the nasty, brutal, and short stuff of life that Hobbes warned us was waiting outside of civilization.
Outside, or inside, if you’re unlucky enough to stumble upon it.
Tell No One is a sharp-looking, well-written, and well-acted tangle of thorns. Like a roller-coaster ride through a very dark place, it leaves you not quite certain of exactly where each spin, twist, or drop had taken you, but nonetheless aware you’ve been on a hell of a ride.
Jason A. Zwiker is a Charleston journalist who blogs at zwiker.blogspot.com.