Don’t Tell a Soul Review: A nail-biting thriller that just doesn’t stick the landing
The directorial debut of Alex McAulay, Don’t Tell a Soul, is a bare-knuckled, grisly thriller about dominant masculinity and keeping secrets that goes a little too far.
The film follows two brothers, the domineering, older Matt (Fion Whitehead) and the younger, more submissive Joey (Jack Dylan Grazer), that steal money from an empty house in order to help their ailing mother (Mena Suvari). Their latest snatch and grab unfortunately lands them in a chase with a security officer named Hamby (Rainn Wilson) that ends with Hamby falling into an old well and being unable to get out. While Joey is reluctant to leave Hamby down there to die, Matt forces him to leave him be and to not tell anyone about it. Unable to just leave Hamby to die, Joey goes against his brother’s stern demand and attempts to help Hamby stay alive and get out of the hole. This sparks a battle of aggression and wills as Joey attempts to help Hamby and stand against his brother as dark secrets unfold that change the entire situation.
Early on, it’s easy to tell that McAulay crafts a detailed and well told thriller with Don’t Tell a Soul. The story is detailed in a way that creates these moments of clarity that keep you intrigued and some well-built moments. The outcomes of certain moments and conversations are brought back in a way that creates big story moments and pivotal changes that have big ramifications and twists. Things like a dropped gas mask and Joey and Matt’s mother watching news broadcasts about violent crimes end up having interesting payoffs and kick off a twisty third act that’s pretty interesting at the start. Even the way he feeds small details about Matt and Joey’s rough upbringing and how their relationship has gotten so volatile and toxic.
Honestly, every scene between Matt and Joey leaves you on edge with how tense their relationship is. With Matt being such a cold, callous, and selfish person and Joey being so submissive and timid, there’s always that worry that things are going to take a violent turn with plenty of close calls. Joey is constantly finding himself stuck between possibly facing the wrath of his brother and doing the right thing in not letting Mr. Hamby die in the hole. It’s what makes Don’t Tell a Soul an interesting coming of age thriller that not only puts toxic masculinity a full, ugly display, but creates an interesting narrative that seeks to challenge it head on and establishes it as a cycle of abuse that stemmed from their deceased father. It’s made even more compelling with the solid performances from talented cast.
While the main cast is small, it’s full of really talented, often underrated and under seen cast. Whitehead breaks out from his quiet breakout role in Dunkirk with a dominating and sickeningly evil performance as Matt. He perfectly brings out a sheer nastiness and vile behavior that showcases how Matt perpetuates the abuse likely brought on him by his father and the lengths he’ll go to maintain dominance over Joey. Where Whitehead makes Matt absolutely despicable, Grazer makes Joey very easy for viewers to gravitate towards with how he tries to stand up for himself and do what’s right. While McAulay’s direction and story choices sometimes makes Joey seem like a little kid rather than a teenager, Grazer brings some maturity to the role that reminds you that Joey is someone trapped in an unsafe life. He’s someone looking for direction and its what allows Wilson to act as a pseudo father figure role that is really intriguing to watch.
However, the film’s mean streak makes it a little too tough of a watch to enjoy or want to engage in and muddies up what exactly the ending is meant to say about the abuse and toxic behavior shown throughout the film. Matt is honestly such an intolerable character and the things he does are so despicable that there’re moments you just want things to end so that you simply don’t have to deal with him anymore. The film eventually makes him sort of pay for what he’s done with the revenge turn it makes, but it ultimately ends up leaving a mixed message in terms of how Joey stands up against Matt. The film’s last act kind of promotes this idea of defeating toxic masculinity with its own medicine and turn’s Joey standing up to Matt with a “fighting violence with violence” mentality that’s a little problematic. There’s honestly a lot that happens in the final act that feels like the logic of the characters kind of goes out the window and a lot of twists and moments happen for the sake of keeping things going for the sake of unnecessary filler. It’s literally like the movie doesn’t want to end and just keeps adding in things that create a messy ending.
Although it can’t live up to fully defying the toxic masculinity it presents with its overbearing, mean-spirited nature, Don’t Tell a Soul contains an interesting story full of nail-biting thrills and solid performances that makes it a strong directorial debut for McAulay.