Film Review: ‘Secret in Their Eyes’

Secret In Their Eyes Trailer
Courtesy of STX Entertainment

A superb supporting turn by Julia Roberts is the most welcome revelation of this clever but workmanlike English-language remake.

Long-buried truths are exhumed, and a foreign-language Oscar winner gets a clever but workmanlike Hollywood retooling, in “Secret in Their Eyes,” a time-shuffling tale of murder, corruption, paranoia and the many varieties of obsession. Neatly swapping in post-9/11 counterterrorism for late-’70s Argentinean political upheaval, writer-director Billy Ray’s thriller-procedural plays like a serviceable feat of narrative surgery, though it does boast one masterstroke in the reworking of a key role, played here by Julia Roberts with a piercing restraint that silences any lingering doubt that she was born to be more than just America’s sweetheart. This second major release from STX Entertainment (after the recent sleeper hit “The Gift”) should parlay its cast names, including Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor, into solid year-end counterprogramming.

A 2009 Spanish-Argentinean co-production directed by Juan Jose Campanella (credited as an exec producer on the remake), “The Secret in Their Eyes” made quite a splash internationally, sweeping Argentina’s top film prizes and nabbing the Oscar for best foreign-language film over the likes of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.” It’s no surprise that Academy voters went for Campanella’s “Secret,” a glossed-up pulp fiction that gestured often enough in the direction of seriousness — a twinkly rumination on art and memory here, a non-committal smattering of politics there — to be mistaken for the real thing. This English-lingo remake, while similarly superficial, at least has fewer pretensions and more honest grit, even if its relentless hopscotching back and forth in time initially feels busier than the hard-nosed detectives and attorneys introduced in the opening stretch.

In Los Angeles circa 2015, former FBI investigator Ray Kasten (Ejiofor) returns to his old offices armed with possible evidence of the new identity and whereabouts of Marzin, the never-prosecuted suspect in the 2002 rape and murder of a teenage girl. The body, as we see in the ensuing flashbacks, was found in a dumpster behind a mosque, and so the investigation fell to Kasten and his tough-talking partner, Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts), both part of a special task force cracking down on terrorism in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. (Terrorism, in this context, translates to Islam, a fact that unfortunately lends the movie more than a little topical resonance.) In the script’s most gut-wrenching departure from the original story, the dead girl turned out to be Cobb’s daughter — a horrific coincidence that might have been laughable on screen if Ejiofor and Roberts didn’t play it with such anguished conviction, amplified by the mournful, non-exploitative visual approach favored by Ray and his cinematographer, Danny Moder (shooting in a gray-and-brown palette redolent of both professional drabness and mud).

Ray’s script fidgets restlessly between past and present, teaching the viewer to keep track of time through the insistent darkening and lightening of Ejiofor’s beard. In 2015, Kasten and his trusty old colleague Bumpy (Dean Norris) attempt to ensnare the man they think is Marzin — against the better judgment of district attorney Claire Sloan (Kidman), who, for Cobb’s sake, can’t bear to see the perpetrator slip through their fingers yet again. Back in 2002, we learn, Marzin (Joe Cole) was an undercover informant who had infiltrated a terrorist cell possibly connected to the mosque — an “in” that made him virtually untouchable where the Bureau was concerned. But just as Campanella’s film reduced its military and political context to socially conscious window dressing, so this “Secret in Their Eyes” treats its post-9/11 moment as a slippery red herring, albeit one that effectively underscores how competing government interests can thwart the pursuit of justice.

Despite all this skullduggery and compromise, Kasten believes, the truth will inevitably betray itself in a person’s guilty countenance — whether it’s in the pages of police mugshots that he spends hours poring over, or in the seemingly innocuous company-picnic photo that exposes a criminal in the making. Of course, operating on that sort of pure, anti-establishment instinct can lead even a skilled detective to bend the law to his or her advantage, especially when it concerns the death of a police officer’s child (another reason why the revision of Roberts’ role works so well). Even with that excuse, Kasten abuses the system to a borderline-ridiculous degree, at various points seizing evidence without a warrant and planning a (successful) stakeout based on the barest of hunches.

It’s not the only way the detective blurs the boundaries between professional obligation and personal desire, to judge by the romantic attraction that continues to flicker between him and Sloan, even after a 13-year absence. Perhaps flicker is too strong a word. Refreshing as it is to see a recent uptick in no-big-deal interracial relationships (between this and the Will Smith-Margot Robbie starrer “Focus”), Kidman and Ejiofor, both sturdy and empathetic here, never muster much in the way of chemistry; so tenuous is their characters’ romantic bond that their colleagues have to keep bringing it up, as if to remind us that it’s still a factor. It’s by far the weakest dramatic and thematic link in a story that’s ostensibly about the prison of desire — how we are all slaves, in the end, to the unique feelings, drives and obsessions that make us who we are.

As for “Secret in Their Eyes,” the movie manages to register its own identity in gradual, piecemeal fashion, even as it doesn’t deviate too dramatically from its predecessor’s narrative template. Ray reproduces some of the original film’s most memorable images and sequences wholesale, including a delicious tell-off scene in which Sloan brilliantly uses the language of sexual humiliation to force a suspect’s confession, and a lengthy zoom shot of an athletic stadium that’s as impressive as it is gimmicky. Yet while this PG-13-rated movie generally avoids the lurid violence and sexuality that crept in around the corners of Campanella’s “Secret,” the filmmaking also feels appreciably grittier and less precious — the work of a smart, no-nonsense craftsman who, as he demonstrated in his fine earlier efforts, “Breach” and “Shattered Glass,” is clearly no stranger to spinning tales of deception, rogue behavior and institutional intrigue.

Where Ray proves most assertive is in his wise choice of ensemble players, who include Norris, channeling a less swaggering but equally dependable version of “Breaking Bad’s” Hank Schrader, and Michael Kelly, eminently hissable as an FBI colleague who, like Sloan’s D.A. predecessor (Alfred Molina), frustrates Kasten’s investigation at every turn. And then there’s Roberts, who, after her impressive, Oscar-nominated turn in “August: Osage County,” continues to explore and deepen her talent for sharp, resonant character work in left-of-center roles. Looking weary and downright haggard at times (especially next to the pale and perfectly coiffed Kidman, who, it must be said, seems to age the least of the three principals), Roberts brings an acrid sense of bitterness and sorrow to this exceedingly sharp-witted sleuth, registering the cruel passage of time and the toll of unspeakable tragedy in every careworn feature and vocal quaver. “You look a million years old,” someone tells her at one point, but this is no self-conscious deglam job; it’s a skillful and humane turn from an actress whose darkly penetrating gaze comes closest to fulfilling the mystery of the title.

Film Review: ‘Secret in Their Eyes’

Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, Nov. 4, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

(Spain-U.S.) An STX Entertainment (in U.S.) release presented with IM Global, in association with Route One/Union Investment Partners, of a Gran Via production, a SITE Prods. and Willies Movies production, in association with Ingenious Media. Produced by Mark Johnson, Matt Jackson. Executive producers, Stuart Ford, Deborah Zipser, Russell Levine, Lee Jea Woo, Robert Simonds, Matt Berenson, Jeremiah Samuels, Juan Jose Campanella. Co-producers, John Ufland, Juan Antonio Garcia Peredo, Chris Lytton. Co-executive producer, Pyung Ho Choi.

Crew

Directed, written by Billy Ray, based on the film “The Secret in Their Eyes” written by Juan Jose Campanella, Eduardo Sacheri. Camera (color, widescreen), Danny Moder; editor, Jim Page; music, Emilio Kauderer; music supervisor, David Schulhof; production designer, Nelson Coates; art director, Colin De Rouin; set decorator, Andrea Joel; set designers, Patricia Klawonn, D. Tracy Smith; costume designer, Shay Cunliffe; sound, William B. Kaplan; sound designers, Peter Staubli, Ann Seibelli, D. Chris Smith; supervising sound editor, Karen Baker Landers; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, Elliot Tyson; special effects supervisor, Michael Lantieri; visual effects supervisor, John Heller; visual effects, Mr. X; stunt coordinators, David Rowden, Dennis Fitzgerald; associate producers, Sam Ha, Min Young Hong; assistant director, Tom Davies; casting, Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas.

With

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Alfred Molina. (English dialogue)

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  1. Chinyere says:

    The critics keep comparing the original film to the remake, even though most viewers have not seen the original film and don’t care a hoot about it. The dark, fascinating thriller is about a woman’s worst nightmare and how it impacts several lives that are entwined with each other. The film was criticised for dwelling too much on Julia Roberts character’s trauma instead of the investigation angle. Are male critics so insensitive? This pissed me off. Losing a child the way Roberts character experienced in the film is a horrendous nightmare.

    The film kept me on an emotional roller coaster for weeks. That means the film was good. Very good. I also loved the sweet, subtle, simmering undercurrents between Chiwetel and Nichole’s characters. Such refreshing stuff from the flash-in the-pan sexual escapades that Hollywood is notorious for.

    Secret In Their Eyes is one of best films I’ve watched in a long time..

  2. John says:

    Chang – you produced a lot of gibberish when all you had to say was that the movie sucked big time. There was in fact a secret, but it was in no one’s eyes.

  3. Lorrie says:

    Would not recommend this film. Nicole as a District Attorney with top blouse button undone? Miscast in this role ..more suitable for a perfume advert. Julia is a good actress, fellow with name hard to pronounce is okay but movie is drawn out, hard to follow, too confusing and should have been much better with a pretty good climax gone to waste!!

  4. JK says:

    Julia Roberts is the most shrill, strident actor in films today. Giving this a wide pass, despite the rest of the talented cast.

  5. StellaG says:

    Terrible title and bad wigs.

  6. Goodbyenoway says:

    Why remake a film that is 6 years old and perfect? Hollywood needs to get some ideas. They’re pathetic.

    • ETERNAL BLEANKNESS says:

      This film is so bleak and depressing and void of any hope or humanity, I wonder ho many suicides it will invoke? Just so damn depressing!!! Can imagine the mayor plot twist here is Kidman and Roberts were paid .00000000000000000000000% less than their male counterparts. And the fems won’t be onboard as it seems not to take sides in that fight. But man, it’s suicide inducing depression on display. How is it possible to make a film at this scale and not present some hope for mankind? How can a film like this get made? We need hope in our art not this eternal bleakness.

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