Tell No One is a little complicated, so maybe it will be useful to try reducing it. OK, imagine The Fugitive, but in French, and with Dustin Hoffman instead of Harrison Ford. Or a guy who looks like Dustin Hoffman, and acts like Hoffman used to, in clean, declarative beats that command us to hang on his every move.
The guy is François Cluzet, as an affable pediatrician who lost his wife (Marie-Josée Croze) to a brutal murder — or thought he did, for about eight years, until getting weirdly plausible messages implying that she’s still alive. (“Tell no one,” one of these apparitional emails instructs. “They’re watching.”) His every move consists of getting some answers while dodging a few shady operators and even the cops, who’ve decided after all this time to reconsider him as a suspect. And they’re as right to do so, paradoxically, as he is to reconsider what little he already knew about his wife’s death. Even if Cluzet weren’t so compelling (“they’re watching,” indeed), the plot of Tell No One would find a way to make us want to figure it all out.
Adapting American author Harlan Coben’s novel with Philippe Lefebvre, director Guillame Canet has delivered a stylish, commercial, tautly paced thriller. Really, the film has everything it needs: mystery, suspense, corrupt motives and pure ones, the requisite last-act explanation, plus a surplus of winning performances — watch, too, for Kristin Scott Thomas, as the pediatrician’s sister’s wised-up girlfriend; for Gilles Lellouche, as the father of one of his patients who becomes an important ally; for Mikaela Fisher, as a butchy, James Bond-worthy villainess who can torture people with merely a pinch. And yes, sooner or later, the question of whether the movie has everything we need does come up, but doesn’t nag.
Maybe it’s that being French gives Tell No One an aura of exoticism and sophistication to which Americans can’t help but respond. Maybe it’s simply that Hollywood no longer can be counted on to provide well-built movies in this mold, and so the Americans are famished for them.
Even still, let’s give Canet some personal credit — for his intelligently literary but still movie-savvvy script, and for his singular directorial flourishes. He’s more sensitive to atmosphere than this briskly-moving narrative might at first make apparent: The rural lake where our hero and his sweetheart summered as teenagers and skinny dipped in the moonlight on the fateful night of their separation, for instance, seems by turns sinister and idyllic, just as it should.
Plus, while Canet clearly enjoys the showman’s art of surprise, he manages enough restraint to avoid getting, well, showy. It’s precisely because Tell No One doesn’t normally behave like a spectacle-mongering action flick, for instance, that its foot chase through traffic on Paris’ Peripherique motorway is so memorably harrowing. There are other examples, but it’s best not to give them away.
What matters is that it’s OK to describe Tell No One as a roller-coaster ride through a labyrinth of riddles, because the movie is as cognizant of such clichés as we are. And it’s fine to liken it to The Fugitive, or even to some Gallic combination of The Big Sleep and Vertigo, because, appealingly and appropriately in this case, reduction has a way of becoming expansion.