Secret In Their Eyes
Directed by Billy Ray
Opens November 20
Remaking a great crime movie has generally proven ill-advised, even for exceptional directors. Realistically, the hope is merely for a self-consciously jaunty update, like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven or F. Gary Gray’s The Italian Job. The challenge of bringing something fresh to the table is a stiff one. The typical means of trying to meet it are to employ actors with screen personae comparable to but distinct from those of the inaugural players, and to relocate the story. The problem with the first is that replicating the unique synchronicity between a great movie’s story and its actors is a matter of alchemy. The difficulty with the second is that movies are often intimately bound to place. Consider the execrable 2000 remake of the marvelously coarse 1971 British thriller Get Carter. Sylvester Stallone is not Michael Caine, and Seattle is a long way from Newcastle.
Billy Ray, whose Shattered Glass and Breach were creditable films about damaged people, evidently was out to break the remake hex with the neo-noir Secret in Their Eyes, his Los Angeles-set take on Argentinean director Juan José Campanella’s original The Secret in Their Eyes. That film is a singularly rich and outré revenge number that starts in Buenos Aires during the lawless era of the “dirty war,” and a deserving winner of the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2010. And there is precedent for a successful American conversion of an Argentinean movie: Gregory Jacobs’s neat little indie Criminal, which drew on Fabian Bielinsky’s Nine Queens. Ray also gave himself decent odds by recruiting Chiwetel Ejiofor, brilliant just lately in 12 Years a Slave and Z for Zachariah, and Julia Roberts, whose graceful professional segue into middle age has been marked by a winning lack of vanity and a weathered naturalism in her acting style.
Too bad about the thin screenplay and indifferent directing.
The movie cuts back and forth between the months following 9/11 and the present. During the earlier period, Carolyn (Zoe Graham), the daughter of Jess Cobb (Roberts), a district attorney’s investigator assigned to the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, is horrifically murdered next to a mosque that the Force is investigating. Her superiors torpedo the case FBI Special Agent Ray Kasten (Ejiofor), who is detailed to the unit, makes against the prime suspect because he is a useful counterterrorism asset. Once released, he’s in the wind. Jess seemingly endures the injustice, in terminal mourning, and Ray leaves law enforcement in haunted disgust. Both remain obsessed with avenging Carolyn, and thirteen years later he shows up in LA with news that he has identified the culprit from among thousands of photographs in a national prison database. The man is now free, and Ray recruits former sidekick Bumpy Willis (the reliably irreverent Dean Norris) to help track him down, securing a promise from Claire Sloan (an icily somnolent Nicole Kidman), now the district attorney, that this time she will convict him.
In this rendering, the story seems like little more than a made-for-TV kitchen-sink job about obsession, vengeance, and expedience, albeit an ambitious one. If there’s a political message, it might be that fear of terrorism has overwhelmed our basic sense of justice, but it is hackneyed as well as crudely and artlessly delivered. Roberts is as good as she can be as the shattered, deadened Jess, but the script boxes her in. Only evanescent glimpses are provided of her relationship with her murdered daughter, who remains a cipher. Motherhood may be biologically irreversible, but it isn’t always existentially sacrosanct. Some proof is required. Yet no substantive backstory about what made their bond especially strong—why there seems to be no father in the picture, why they might have been kindred spirits as well as mother and daughter—is provided to flesh out and distinguish their relationship. As a result, Jess’s claim that Carolyn “was what made me, me” is a hollow slogan and a wholly inadequate basis for Jess’s twisted behavior. So what she does with her anger and heartache plays almost as morbid satire rather than the intended moral tragedy.
Similarly, the killer is defined solely by the murder itself and one lewdly juvenile gesture he makes, off-camera no less, during an interrogation. Especially given that he is physically unprepossessing, and gruesome though the slaying was, something more in the way of a potent manifestation of personal threat is needed to make him a convincing psychopath and to explain the darkly obsessive machinations he inspires. Lack of context and congruity are pervasive faults of this comprehensively claustrophobic movie. Save for a tedious chase scene at a Dodgers game, it has no sense of place. Ejiofor’s innate gravitas exceeds his station as an unhinged former FBI agent, but it could have been put to decent use had he been paired more frequently on the screen with Roberts, the one with the prime grievance to whom he hopes to bring peace. Instead, his most substantial connection is with Sloan on account of a witless cul-de-sac of a subplot in which they were lovers. There’s no chemistry there, and the relationship is of little consequence. Neither, unfortunately, is the movie.