Secret in Their Eyes Review
Secret in Their Eyes stars Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a post-9/11 murder mystery. Alas, it has no edge.
Secret in Their Eyes finds former FBI investigator Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returning to the Los Angeles office where he worked 13 years earlier with investigator Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) and deputy district attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman) on an anti-terrorism task force in the wake of 9/11.
All those years ago, Cobb’s daughter was found brutally slain near a mosque, and while they had a suspect they were never able to get him convicted, in large part because of departmental politics and backstabbing. Now, years after he left his job, Ray comes back and claims that he has new evidence with which to finally bring justice for Cobb’s daughter’s murder.
Secret in Their Eyes is the English-language remake of a 2009 Argentinean film, El Secreto de Sus Ojos, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and was itself was based on a novel called La Pregunta de Sus Ojos (The Question in Their Eyes). Both the original book and film were partially set against the backdrop of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” a nine-year period in which crime ran rampant and state-backed terrorism was common as the country went through the dying throes of its last military dictatorship. Setting what was essentially a pulp murder mystery against such a turbulent, unpredictable backdrop, combined with passionate performances from a clutch of excellent Argentinean actors, gave it more weight and tension than expected.
Director/screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) has a trio of fine actors to wrangle in his adaptation, and all three turn in good work, but they never quite gel together as an ensemble. More importantly, the plot never coheres the way it should because the contrivances necessary to make certain aspects of it work – for example, how the alleged killer went free the first time – seem more unbelievable in this version of the story.
We are told that Ray, for example, had to look at an almost ridiculous number of photos every night for 13 years in order to find a current mug shot that he thinks belongs to the long-vanished killer – an obsession that not only borders on the insane, which Ejiofor does not come across as, but also unrealistic given that he’s been working as head of security for the New York Mets for all these years.
There are other plot mechanics that stretch to the point of snapping, including some questionable details about the person in the mug shot and even the idea that the killer went free because he was also working as a possible snitch in a mosque that the L.A. unit was watching in the wake of 9/11. Alfred Molina, as Ejiofor’s boss Morales, never makes the mix of corruption and post-9/11 paranoia feel as palpable as it should, while another officer in on the conspiracy, Siefert (Michael Kelly), just comes across as a cartoon heavy.
But none of the three principals are served very well either. Ejiofor seems too dignified and righteous to be so obsessive, and the romantic spark that supposedly bloomed between him and Claire during the original case is never felt onscreen. The two share almost no chemistry at all, and Kidman’s glacial career woman only shows some fire in a terrific interrogation scene where she uses some unlikely methods to get the killer to incriminate himself.
Roberts, meanwhile, plays the agony of a parent losing a child quite poignantly at first, before eventually morphing into a kind of crazy person from another movie – especially at the end, when this film abruptly turns into a horror picture.
It’s the lack of a convincing tone or any real urgency, combined with the variable performances, that ultimately brings Secret in Their Eyes down to a mediocre TV-movie level despite a few great sequences (such as a chase through Dodger Stadium) and what, on paper, could be a terrific and engrossing story – and in fact was, in the Spanish-language version.
But even without directly comparing the two, the English-language film never really takes off or finds a way to make some sort of powerful thematic or emotional statement out of its complicated, past-and-present storyline. It’s a small film that wants to be a lot bigger than it actually is, and will probably play pretty well on cable on a rainy Sunday morning – but for all the movie’s attempts to be a sweeping, politically charged melodrama, the real secret is that there isn’t much there at all.
Secret in Their Eyes is out in theaters this Friday (Nov. 20).