I’ve racked my brain trying to make sense of this. The equation of its construction promised the kind of thriller the Academy goes gaga over, and the kind that I should have! And yet Secret In Their Eyes is so, so much less than the sum of its parts.
As a base, you take the premise from the Oscar-winning 2009 cold case crime-thriller, El Secreto de Sus Ojos. Then you bring on Billy Ray, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Captain Phillips, to translate the location from Dirty War-era Argentina to post-9/11 America. Hell, Ray has helmed a pair of praised dramas (Shattered Glass, Breach); let him direct too! Now, to star, let’s cast a trio of leads who can grab mainstream America’s attention as well as lending this revenge plot some prestige. Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman. Academy Award-winner Julia Roberts. Academy Award-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor. All good stuff. So why—WHY—does Secret In Their Eyes suck?
This is the mystery I tried to unravel as I sat furrow-browed and groaning through its tedious 111 minutes. Admittedly, I have smoky memories of the original Argentinian film. So, I knew the major beats to expect. But I didn’t anticipate that being a problem with dramatic heavy hitters like Kidman, Roberts and Ejiofor leading the way.
Set in 2002 and 2015 Los Angeles, Ejiofor plays Ray, a former FBI terrorist task force agent turned private sector security guard haunted by the murderer his bungled investigation once set free. Making matters worse, the victim (Zoe Graham) was the cherished daughter of his colleague Jess (Roberts). 13 years later, Jess is still in the police force, but a shell of her former self. And though they’ve drifted apart, Ray believes he has found a new lead that can get them justice and closure, once and for all. But they’ll need the help of Ray’s former flame Claire (Kidman), who’s now L.A.’s powerful D.A.
Horrific crimes, shattered families, and a flawed but ardent quest for justice, I have a dark love of these kind of stories. Yet this one never hit me. Ejiofor rails at his colleagues, spirals into violent outbursts and thoughts of vigilante justice. And I felt nothing. Roberts—who rejects the standard flawless female lead look to favor bags under her eyes, flyaways by the ton, and painfully chapped lips—stews over her daughter’s death, howls like a wounded animal over her corpse, and spits out promises of vengeance with cold eyes. And I yawned. When the pair of them reveal “twists” about why they feel uniquely to blame for the teen girl’s death, I rolled my eyes because this was getting hokey, not deep or devastating.
Walking out of the screening, a fellow critic let out a sigh and said, “Well, that happened.” Yup. From there we tried to make sense of why this felt like a piss-poor episode of a crime-procedural show instead of the powerful adult drama its puzzle pieces promised it would resemble. The fault must be Billy Ray’s, right? I mean he not only wrote the script, but also directed three incredible actors into portrayals that fall astonishingly flat onscreen.
I suspect part of the problem is the film’s structure. Bouncing back and forth from past to present can be jarring as its prime guideposts for where we are in time is a bit of salt-and-pepper in Ejiofor’s yummy facial hair, and a different blonde wig for Kidman. But beyond this, the story leaps without apparent cause to and from, and so the momentum of the film never moves past stuttered. Before we can get a sense of who our heroes are, flashbacks hurl us haphazardly to who they were. Without grounding them, the contrast is never clear, thus never impactful.
I’m astonished this movie is so thoroughly dull. And I totally understand if you don’t believe me. It makes little sense. But what makes even less sense is Secret In Their Eyes’s plot. To writer/director Ray’s credit, he makes some smart changes to the original script. Turning the victim’s surviving family member into a cop too-close-to-the-case sets up for more interpersonal drama and guilt than the original premise. But a lot of the decisions these cops and lawyer make in trying to track down the killer are mind-bogglingly stupid, breaking any form of conceivable protocol. And to those of you who admired the original ending, I’ve got bad news for you too. (Highlight for spoiler reveal: Unbelievably, the finale bends over backwards to allow for the closest thing to a happy ending this bleak drama can manage.)
If after all of this you still think you want to see Secret In Their Eyes, let me offer one last warning. In the wake of what’s going on in the U.S. and abroad, it’s rough watching a movie about sneering corrupt cops, especially when their smug justifications come with tirades about terrorism and repeated references to 9/11.
Basically, this is a shockingly bad movie with exceptionally bad timing.