'The Word': Film Review

The Word Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Scarlet Sky Productions

The Word Still - H 2014

A grieving father tries to solve his son's murder in this overheated, poorly acted melodrama.

Low-budget thriller focuses on a father's search for the religious cult that may have murdered his child.

Any film that deals with the kidnapping and killing of a child is bound to have a certain grim power.  The Word, which played at several festivals before opening this week, fails to rise above the inherent sordidness of the subject matter.  It’s indifferently acted and directed, though it generates a measure of suspense and queasy fascination.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine much of an audience that will want to surrender to such a disturbing story.

The kidnapping and murder have already taken place when the film starts.  Tom (Kevin O’Donnell) was raising his son on his own.  Preoccupied with his high-powered career, he got distracted by a business colleague at a local mall and did not pay attention when his son wandered off.  Apart from a few flashbacks, most of the film concerns the police investigation of the crime and Tom’s increasingly frenzied search for vengeance.  A weird loner has confessed to the killing, and Tom attacks him in the courtroom.  But the police and FBI see parallels to another child murder and think a religious cult may have planned the abduction and have other victims in mind.  Tom distrusts the officials to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, so he starts his own investigation as he battles his own blood lust. 

Because of his violent outburst in the courtroom, Tom is ordered to undergo psychotherapy, and he begins to develop a close connection with his therapist (Maggie Lacey).  In fact, pretty soon both doctor and patient are overstepping boundaries in ways that raise suspicions about the stability of the two of them. 

The film hopes to succeed as a psychological study of a man succumbing to paranoia and derangement as a result of his guilt and grief.  But for this study to register forcefully, the filmmakers would need a stronger actor than O’Donnell.  He gives a clumsy, frequently overblown performance that undermines our emotional connection to the character.  Many of the other actors also give amateurish performances.  Lacey as the psychiatrist is more accomplished, though the script forces her to act in implausibly unprofessional ways.  The one pro in the cast is James Naughton as the head FBI agent; he’s the only actor who seems thoroughly convincing at every turn.

Writer-producer Stephen Grimaldi fails to bring much dimension to the characters, and he includes too much breathless gibberish about an Aztec cult that is built on the idea of human sacrifice.  (Much of this exposition is delivered by a particularly callow actor, Michael Shulman.)  Director Gregory W. Friedle does no favors to most of the actors with his heavy-handed staging.  The film does build some tension in the final third.  And a climactic plot twist, though telegraphed a little before the ending, is moderately clever.  The film is handsomely shot by Matthew Boyd in some scenic corners of Connecticut.  Although the picture keeps you watching, it’s more awkward than artful for most of its running time.

Screenwriter-producer:  Stephen Grimaldi.

Co-producer:  Michael Goodin.

Director of photography:  Matthew Boyd.

Production designer:  Jeanette Drake.

Costume designer:  Angelique Pesce.

Editor:  Eric Levesque.

Music:  Joe Carrano.

No rating, 104 minutes.