What might have been a pedestrian thriller adapted from a self-referentially recycled Stephen King novella is elevated several notches by Johnny Depp, who continues to ride the wave of a remarkable mid-career high. The resourceful actor invigorates “Secret Window” with a playful personality and wryly humorous aplomb not front-and-center in the script, making the psycho-suspenser more compelling than it might otherwise have been. Depp’s drawing power is up against a cheesy trailer and lackluster marketing campaign from Columbia, but the former should prevail enough to lure fans in sizable numbers.
Feature adaptations of horrormeister King’s stories have shown wildly varying degrees of success in the past 10 years, yielding the most distinguished results with fairly atypical tales in Frank Darabont’s prison pics “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” and arguably hitting rock bottom with last year’s quasi-mystical sci-fi hokum “Dreamcatcher,” from Lawrence Kasdan.
While it doesn’t have the character-driven muscle of Kathy Bates starrers “Misery” and “Dolores Claiborne” — both of which showed what richly enjoyable B-movie fodder King’s work could become — writer-director David Koepp’s film at least is back on the right track, its classy veneer, slick execution and capable cast lending some edge to a predictable story.
In his third feature outing behind the camera, screenwriting luminary Koepp — who penned “Panic Room,” “Spider-Man” and “Mission: Impossible,” among others — has delivered a refreshingly old-fashioned thriller that plays out its more graphically violent episodes offscreen. Traditional genre fans may also appreciate the low-tech feel — set in the present, the action takes place largely in a secluded cabin in upstate New York, where there’s not a cell phone or Internet connection in sight. The solitude of Depp’s character is pierced frequently by the shrill ring of a rotary dial phone.
Wallowing in self-pity, inertia and writer’s block after the meltdown of his marriage, successful author Mort Rainey (Depp) is shaken from his slump by the intrusion of John Shooter (John Turturro), a menacing hick from Mississippi who accuses Mort of having plagiarized his story. Exchanges with his ex-wife Amy (Maria Bello) reveal another incidence of plagiarism in Mort’s past, along with hints of alcoholism and psychological imbalance. These factors fuel the author’s paranoia despite the certainty his story was first published before Shooter’s manuscript was.
Shooter demands Mort make amends for the alleged creative theft by reworking the ending of the story — a dark tale rooted in the writer’s marriage — with manifestations of his then incipient hostility toward Amy. The intruder sends increasingly persuasive signals that he means business, first putting a screwdriver through Mort’s dog, then burning down the New York home where Amy lives with new partner Ted (Timothy Hutton), before progressing to brutal murder.
Despite the echoes of “Misery” in the isolated cabin setting and the writer protagonist, the story just as pointedly recalls King’s “The Shining” in its chronicle of a man becoming steadily unhinged, engaged in a bickering dialogue with himself and increasingly ruled by the demons in his head. That film’s obsessive “redrum” refrain also has a wordplay equivalent here in “shooter.” And there’s a repeated reference that inevitably calls to mind King’s “Children of the Corn.”
Genre-savvy audiences will see the film’s big twist coming, but Depp’s amusing turn keeps the central character’s dilemma diverting. Looking dazed and disheveled in his ex-wife’s ratty bathrobe for much of the action, with an unruly mop of dirty blond hair, Mort is by turns spent, scared, cunning and dryly deadpan in his bemused observations. The character’s many weird tics — he clicks his jaw constantly like a TMJ Syndrome sufferer — give Mort far more interesting quirks than the usual tortured writer figure, and his reading matter of choice (Tom Robbins and Hunter S. Thompson) seems closer to that of Depp himself than anyone out of King’s books.
The film is something of a one-man-show, but the backup cast makes incisive contributions: Turturro taps into a rich tradition of dangerously nasty yokels; Bello conveys the mixed emotions of a woman juggling residual affection, concern and exasperation; and Hutton brings fractious energy to his confrontations with Mort that fuel the latter’s misgivings about him.
Aside from a slight mid-section sag during which Mort’s failure to react becomes frustrating, Koepp keeps the action taut and confidently builds suspense through to a gruesome final act, punctuating the proceedings with flashes of memory rendered as short, sharp shocks by editor Jill Savitt. The director shows a keen grasp of the unnervingly claustrophobic atmosphere of confined quarters in a gloomily lit wilderness, all of it gracefully shot in widescreen by Fred Murphy with supple camera movement.
While it’s surprisingly conventional thriller accompaniment compared to some of the composer’s more distinctive scores like “The Hours” or his work for Errol Morris, Philip Glass’ somber music is used with effective restraint to modulate tension.