Conveying paranoia is one of the things movies do best—and not just showing it but making you feel it along with the characters. Looming images, wary pans, jumpy camerawork, and carefully doled information can create a delicious sense of anxiety, the perverse thrill of jangly nerves and bated breath.
The French thriller Tell No One achieves those tense heights of paranoia beautifully (a few sequences have real Hitchcockian flair, not quite Cary-Grant-in-the-corn-field but admirably close), but if falls short of what might be the more difficult trick: the dismount. As long as the threat against protagonist Alex Beck is left vague and shadowy, Tell No One works the classic man-unjustly-accused theme to great effect. Undefined, the threat feels overwhelming, but once the movie starts spelling everything out in long explanatory flashbacks, it begins to feel small and sordid, a letdown.
The setup is this: Dr. Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet) was beaten unconscious and his wife, Margot (Marie-Josée Croze), abducted from a remote lake near where they both grew up. He woke from a coma to learn that his father-in-law had identified Margot’s body: she was the victim of a notorious serial killer. Eight years later, the case is reopened when two bodies are discovered near the lake with evidence that may implicate a still-grieving Alex, but the poor man has other concerns. Someone has started sending him e-mails that suggest Margot may still be alive.
The genius of the beginning of the movie is that nothing seems preordained. It’s not clear whether Margot is alive or dead or whether Alex knows more than he’s saying about her disappearance. All we know for sure is that he mourns her loss: Cluzet creates a heartbreaking portrait of a shattered widower trying to be stoic but undone by grief. Director Guillaume Canet even gets away with several moody interludes that probe Alex’s emotions rather than the mystery because Cluzet’s performance is so raw and taut that his character’s pain is just as compelling as a car chase.
But maybe that’s part of the problem, too: Cluzet’s performance is so intense, and Canet’s attention to it so acute, that Tell No One initially feels like a psychological thriller, something more akin to Memento than The Fugitive. The Fugitive is a great movie, of course (I rewatched it recently and was delighted all over again by how awesome Tommy Lee Jones is), but its hero, Richard Kimble, is clearly battling external forces rather than internal ones. Tell No One doesn’t seem about what it wants to be.
And the psychological stuff in Tell No One—the paranoia and obsession and panic and suspicion—is so much more interesting than the seedy, overwrought, unsatisfying solution. The ultimate villain hardly seems worthy of the wreckage in his wake—he’s too peripheral, his power too unbelievable—and the expository talking-villain finale feels pedantic.
Reflecting on that now, though, I wonder whether the nature of paranoia makes that kind of letdown unavoidable. (Even in The Fugitive, a straight thriller that is just about perfect, the solution is probably one of the least memorable elements.) The power of paranoia—in movies and in life—is that anyone could be the bad guy, no one can be trusted, danger could be lurking anywhere. Once the danger is defined, contained, how it not seem less threatening, less potent, less interesting?