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.