Tell No One is a decidedly modern thriller that also, wisely, respects the great examples of the genre's past; strip away all the e-mail and web video and it's a classic Hitchcockian thriller, where a regular-but-resourceful man is squeezed between those who have committed a crime and the cops who think he's committed it. Based on a novel by American best-selling author Harlen Coben, Tell No One is transplanted -- gently -- to France by writer-director Guillame Canet, who turns Coben's breezy summertime page-turner into a breezy summertime movie. Yes, there are plot points in the film where you'll later go back and puzzle over how who knew what when, but trust me, you won't be thinking about that while Tell No One's running up on the big screen.
Alex (François Cluzet) and Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) are happy, childhood sweethearts who've made a real and adult marriage out of that foundation; they're relaxing at the family's country estate enjoying a little night swimming when Margot gets out of the water to check on something. There's a shout, a scream; Alex swims to help her ... and is knocked unconscious by a blow. And then a title jumps the film "Eight Years Later." It's an eye blink for us; for Alex, it's been an eternity. Margot was killed that night -- found dead, the trappings of the scene linking her death to a group of serial killings. Alex, found unconscious on the dock, spent some time as the prime suspect, but that's over. Now he works at his pediatric practice, tries to connect with his friends, tries to move on. It's hard. And it's going to get harder, because two bodies have been found buried near Alex's family estate in the country where Margot was killed, re-opening the whole affair, and then Alex receives an e-mail telling him to log onto a live webcam at a pre-determined time ... and sees Margot. It's impossible. But it's her. And the message warns Alex, clearly and directly "TELL NO ONE."
This quick zip through the premise, though, doesn't convey the small human moments that Canet puts in the film -- Alex's awkward annual visit to Margot's parents, his relationship with a street tough (Gilles Lellouche) who's a father to one of his patients, his connection with his sister's girlfriend Helene (Kristin Scott Thomas). And this material, human and perfectly handled, doesn't distract from the run-and-hide mechanics of the thriller plot in Tell No One; it enhances it and makes it even better, so that by the time Alex goes on the run from the cops convinced he's a killer and the shadowy thugs trailing his every move, we care who he is and know why he does what he does.
Like Kurosawa's masterful High and Low, another foreign film that took an American crime novel, transplanted it to a foreign culture and improved it through the change, Tell No One amplifies the universal elements in the source material while also saying very specific things about the new soil the tale's been rooted in. Canet's got an eye for the nature of modern Paris, from the jaded power of old money to the bustling energy of the new, urban France. Anyone apprehensive that Tell No One is a social critique in a trench coat, though, should also be aware that Canet also brings real vigor and excitement to the film's chases and fights, including a spectacular set-piece on a freeway that's breathless and bold, without sacrificing anything of the film's brains and heart.
The performances are extraordinary, as well. Cluzet's a perfect everyman who's still capable of extraordinary things when pushed to the brink; Cluzet also makes -- or rather, forces -- us to believe in Alex's pain and sorrow at the loss of his wife. Croze (who you'll recognize from Munich or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) manages to bring Margot alive for us both as a real and complex human being and as an exasperating enigma; is Margot alive, or dead? And if she's alive, what reasons for that could possibly make sense of the past eight years of Alex's pain? Alex is reeling from the idea that the random workings of the cruel universe took his wife from him. It turns out, though, that while the universe may not be as random as he thought, it's still terribly cruel.
Tell No One may bank a little on breathless momentum hurtling us over some of the plot's thin spots -- I found myself, three days later, trying to diagram the flow of information in it and making a fairly muddled back-of-the-envelope guess at some of the plot's underlying structure -- but who's worrying about that stuff when there's a woman with a face like a punch on-screen wresting compliance out of her victims by squeezing their nerve pressure points, or a family-heirloom shotgun broken out of storage in the name of bloody murder? And the relationships in the film are finely crafted and superbly drawn without ever getting in the way of the running and the chasing and the secrets and the lies. In the end, we're not rooting for Alex because he's the lead; we're rooting for Alex because we've seen what's truly behind his frantic worry and raw-nerve energy. Canet puts Alex in a real world full of real people (While I can single out Crozee, Thomas and Cluzet for praise, the entire supporting cast is extraordinary, filling small parts with big life. Tell No One is one of the most engaging and well-made thrillers I've seen in years, one with plenty of juicy thrills and real feeling -- a movie whose heart not only races but also beats true.