Free advice to anyone who’s been looking forward to seeing Secret Window: Pray the film breaks about an hour in and the projectionist can’t repair it. If so, you’ll see a funny, scary, thoroughly entertaining suspense film, with a great performance from Johnny Depp. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a technical malfunction, what you see will be overwrought, predictable, and thoroughly disappointing.
It’s interesting that this movie is touted as being “from the writer of Panic Room.” While it’s true that David Koepp, who wrote Panic Room, also directed and wrote the screenplay for Secret Window, he didn’t exactly dream this one up over a long weekend with the in-laws. The movie is based on the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” by Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King, the one whose name used to be tacked onto any horror movie with the slightest relation to one of his stories, like A.I.P. did with Edgar Allen Poe in the ’60s. It would appear that in the aftermath of Dreamcatcher, which was uniformly panned by critics and whose domestic gross was roughly equal to half of its budget, the filmmakers chose to distance themselves from King.
Instead the film is being promoted as a Johnny Depp vehicle. And why not? Depp is riding high; having toiled for 20 years in an eccentric mix of indies and more commercial films, The Pirates of the Caribbean gave his career a well-deserved lift, garnering laudatory reviews and several award nominations, including a win from the Screen Actors Guild. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving actor. And now we have Secret Window, which couldn’t have come along at a worse time.
Depp plays Mort Rainey, a commercially successful hack writer wallowing in the pain of an ugly divorce. When we first see him, he is entering a hotel room to find his wife in bed with another man. We get a glimpse of the angry confrontation that ensues, then cut to six months later, when Rainey is in a very bad way. Hiding out at his cabin on fictional Tashmore Lake in upstate New York, he is disheveled and deeply depressed, his waking hours only brief snatches between the naps that allow him to escape reality.
To add insult to injury, a man appears at his door to accuse him of plagiarism. Look, it’s John Turturro, doing his worst Billy-Bob Thornton impression! A Mississippian with the thickest, most overdone redneck drawl in recent memory, John Shooter is the inbred spawn of Yoknapatawpha County, an amalgam of every negative stereotype about rural Southerners. We see Rainey’s disdain every time he calls Shooter “cracker” or washes his hands immediately after handling something Shooter has touched.
The character is supposed to be menacing but the exaggeration makes him come off like a comedic bit player in a musical version of Deliverance, leading to more laughter than fear. Threatening Rainey’s estranged wife, he leeringly intones, “She’s purty.” The audience guffaws. It’s not Turturro’s fault that he’s terribly miscast, lacking the screen presence necessary to be menacing, but he can be held responsible for lacking the presence of mind to keep his character from becoming a thorough caricature.
But OK, let’s play along. Shooter insists he wrote a story that Rainey stole and published as his own. Rainey denies it and tells Shooter to consult Rainey’s literary agent to pursue his claim. Shooter departs, leaving behind his manuscript, which, when compared to the published version, is indeed almost identical. Rainey insists that he didn’t steal the story … he doesn’t think. It becomes clear that during the time the story was written, Rainey was drinking a lot. And gradually we learn that he’s plagiarized another writer before — but only once. He’s pretty sure.
Soon, Shooter reappears and makes Rainey admit the stories are the same. So the question is who wrote the story first. Shooter says he wrote his in 1997. Rainey retorts that he wrote his in late ‘94 and it was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in June 1995. Shooter gives him a three-day deadline to get the magazine and show it to him.
So now we know what the MacGuffin is. All Rainey has to do is get a copy of this magazine and his claim to authorship can be confirmed. And here, 15 minutes into the movie, is when logic flies out the window. Shooter’s statements have made it clear that the movie is set in 2004. Rainey is shown writing on a laptop computer. But somehow he lives in a world in which a nine-year-old magazine is virtually impossible to find. In our world, 10 minutes on eBay and a few used-book sites could easily locate a copy. Failing that, a call to a large library with a broad selection of periodicals should produce one, from which a helpful librarian could photocopy and fax the pertinent pages. Or Rainey could call the publisher. Instead, it would appear that the only reliable place to find a copy is Rainey’s former home, where Amy, his estranged wife, lives.
As Amy, Maria Bello does herself credit in an underwritten role. She plays the character as simultaneously sympathetic and egocentric, keeping the audience on its toes, never sure how to feel about her. Her new beau, Ted, is a little easier to work out. Timothy Hutton makes Ted thoroughly unsympathetic, a man who came into a troubled marriage (that was him in the motel in the opening scene), helped bring it to an end, and now is hostile and threatening to his girlfriend’s estranged husband.
As the plot unfolds, Depp plays Rainey’s transition from passivity to antic combativeness well, and he has the perfect comic timing to bring off Rainey’s wry one-liners. The film’s humor is its biggest and most satisfying surprise. In almost every scene, Rainey cracks wise about the latest indignity or threat to confront him. Depp is pitch-perfect in these moments, tossing out the lines casually, sometimes muttering them so the audience can barely catch what he’s saying. Depp has often been funny before, but never more subtle, and given that he’s now a more appropriate age and a bigger star, it would be nice to see him parlay this performance into a wisecracking leading man role in the Cary Grant mode. Picture him rather than Mark Walberg in The Truth about Charlie, the recent remake of the Grant/Audrey Hepburn classic Charade. A vast improvement, no?
But back to the “plot,” and its winsome assortment of holes. The central standoff escalates as Shooter begins to make good on his threats of violence, feeding Rainey’s paranoia. Several scenes require a Herculean suspension of disbelief. Rainey has owned his lake cabin for years and apparently has been more or less a shut-in for the past six months, but he doesn’t know where the bathroom mirror is?
As the violence increases, more players are brought in … and taken out. Then comes the “twist,” which is thoroughly predictable even for those who haven’t seen any of several other films in the past few years that feature the same “twist.” From there, any suspension of disbelief becomes impossible, and the film drags on for another 20 minutes, as a movie can only when the audience no longer cares about a single character. It’s a telling sign when a supposedly sympathetic character’s head is smashed on a rock and laughter erupts in the theater. Passing up two perfectly good opportunities to end, Koepp tacks on ridiculous additional scenes that add nothing to the story but plenty to our doubts about Johnny Depp’s judgment.
The last act is so preposterously addle-brained that one has to wonder whether it was intentional, meant as a spoof of all the other suspense films that fall to pieces at the end. If so, Depp is certainly in on the joke, as his previously subtle performance gives way to literally chewing the scenery.
While the plot leaves some significant questions unanswered, the one that matters is will this movie hurt Depp’s growing popularity? Hopefully not. In a movie that is mostly disappointing, Depp delivers a better performance than it deserves.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()