This fall, I’ve reviewed a string of movies that have good working parts that do not quite come together to make a good movie. For various reasons, they have fallen short of their intended tone, or simply fallen flat. Secret in Their Eyes continues this trend, featuring strong performances and interesting plot twists, but ultimately not delivering enough suspense or tension to live up to its Oscar-winning source material.
Set in Los Angeles in the aftermath of September 11th, Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of El secreto de sus ojos, the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, follows the investigation of Claire (Nicole Kidman), Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Jess (Julia Roberts) into the rape and murder of Jess’s daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). Their primary suspect, Marzin (Joe Cole) is a snitch within a mosque Ray has been brought in from the FBI to investigate, as part of a counter-terrorism team. Marzin’s potential value as an informant outweighs his alleged crimes, and the D.A. lets him walk. Thirteen years later, Ray returns to Los Angeles to tell now-D.A. Claire that he believes he has found Marzin and can get justice—either within the system or outside of it. Additionally, the reunion drudges up old romantic feelings between Ray and Claire, and intensifies Ray’s feelings of guilt over the events of the past.
As the story unfolds, it flashes back and forth between 2002 and the present, a shift made easy to track by the changes in Claire and Ray’s hair. In 2002, the tension surrounds Ray’s seemingly unrequited feelings for Claire and his conviction that the D.A. is going to bury the investigation into Carolyn’s murder. In the present, these issues continue to stew, complicated by the reluctance of other investigators to believe that Ray has really found Marzin again. Initially, the temporal shifts work to build suspense, but eventually they become so routine that they weigh down the story rather than driving it forward. I began to imagine how the film would play out if it proceeded in chronological order instead. That, I think is the major flaw of Secret in Their Eyes—the tension, which starts out so strong, fizzles so that by the time all the conflict comes to a head, it does not pack the emotional punch that it really should have.
It is a shame that the most surprising part of Secret in Their Eyes was how disappointed I was by it. It should have been a knockout. The acting is mostly very strong. The scene in which they find Carolyn’s body made me cry just on the basis of Ejiofor and Roberts’ performances. With no real connection to Carolyn as a character, their reactions to finding her are so gut-wrenching that they set up the motive for all the murky actions to follow. Even as Roberts muddles through many other exchanges, that scene alone makes her character plenty compelling. As the villain, Cole is thoroughly creepy in a sinister, but mundane way. He is fully plausible as a guy who blends into the background but actually is a violent predator. These performances, however, eventually get tiring, as the characters do not grow enough to keep things interesting. Up until the final twist, everything feels so inevitable that it undercuts the really poignant and interesting moral questions the plot and the characters raise.
Another element for the film that detracts from the wonderful performances and interesting procedural drama is the post-9/11 setting. The looming threat of terrorism pitted against such a violent crime against a young woman creates a zero-sum situation in the plot that just does not sit well. In places, it seems like the film is trying to critique the way counter-terrorism was handled, but it does not hit those notes well or hard enough, so instead it all feels like a frustratingly unnecessary either-or scenario that does not create sympathy for the characters as well as it should. Maybe the timing for such a story is off, but it felt unnecessary and just gross, for lack of a better word.
Despite its beautiful craftsmanship and performances, the pieces of this movie do not work together to create the taut, thrilling film that it should have been. 2.5/3 stars.
Secret in Their Eyes was directed and written by Billy Ray, based on the film by Juan Jose Campanella. It runs 111 minutes and is rated PG-13.
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