Secret in Their Eyes is a remake of the Argentinian film of the same name which gave its writer/director, Juan José Campanella, the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards. I unfortunately haven’t seen the original just yet, but the remake poses something of interest and that is the writer/director Billy Ray. He is mostly known for writing films such as the first Hunger Games, State of Play and Captain Phillips (for which he received an Oscar nomination), but he has directed before with two solid entries in Shattered Glass and Breach. However, he is tapped to write two really interesting projects, one being the Jonah Hill/Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, The Ballad of Richard Jewell and the other being an adaptation of The Devil in the White City, which Martin Scorsese is supposed to direct. He’s clearly rising the ranks of celebrity screenwriters, but with Secret in Their Eyes, maybe he’ll show he has just as much talent to offer in the director’s chair as well.
The film follows a team of investigators, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Jess (Julia Roberts), Bumpy (Dean Norris), Siefert (Michael Kelly) and the District Attorney, Claire (Nicole Kidman). 13 years ago Jess’ daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham), was suddenly, and very brutally, murdered. While Ray finds a possible suspect in a strange man named Marzin (Joe Cole), nothing substantial could be found to hold the case together. It isn’t until 13 years after the events does Ray find a lead that may finally put the investigation to rest.
Secret in Their Eyes is a very frustrating film. It’s not a bad film, but it’s the kind of movie that has so much potential with the talent in front, and behind, the camera that when it doesn’t fully deliver, it eats your mind the more you think about it. As I said, I haven’t seen the original film, perhaps this is a faithful remake, maybe not, but as its own thing, it is not a very satisfying experience. It’s simply a mediocre film that had the right pieces to be great, but it doesn’t come together in the right way.
The biggest problem is really the story itself. It simply feels like an extended episode of any generic cop/crime drama. There’s nothing particularly new to this story that I haven’t seen before and done way better. Then again, sometimes the plot doesn’t have to always reinvent the wheel, a film can be a complete straight-faced genre exercise, but if that’s the case, than the complete lack of style is a huge misstep. The film isn’t moody, it has no atmosphere, it doesn’t give you any deeply uncomfortable feelings that make you squirm. The filmmaking, from the cinematography to the music just feels like, as I said, an extended episode of some generic TV show. It really could have benefited from some flourishes or interesting stylistic choices. This ain’t no Zodiac, that’s for sure.
I would’ve have completely forgiven the lack of any real cinematic quality in the filmmaking if the film at least had some meat to it. Another frustrating thing about the film is that it constantly alludes to greater depths, but it never follows through. Much of the first half follows this conflict with Ray and his supervisors, where he insists that Marzin is the guy, but the supervisors don’t want to act on it because Marzin is their informer on possible terrorist activity being planned in a mosque. I should mention that this is in the scenes that take place 13 years ago in the year 2002, where post-9/11 paranoia is running rampant. It’s kind of an interesting dilemma, even if the laughable portrayal of Marzin’s evilness is constantly taking you out of the film. However, the film drops this quandary about the halfway point. From that point forward, the film assumes you are invested in the bland story with these bland characters and follows your standard genre thrills, but with no edge, urgency or dramatic tension.
Speaking of bland characters, Secret in Their Eyes is the kind of film where you only like a character because you like the actor playing them. And to be fair, this is where the film shines. The performances are very good basically across the board, with the exception of Joe Cole’s turn as Marzin, a character that is basically only missing a twirly mustache to showcase his pure evilness in a film that is meant to be fairly realistic and grounded. The two that stand out the most are Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Julia Roberts is the more showy, give-me-an-Oscar-please performance, but it is genuinely good. You do buy her change and her actions throughout the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, being one of the greatest actors working today, is fantastic in the film. He gives the littlest touches to his performance that adds to the character, little nuances that the screenplay could not have written down. Just the level of deep feeling that he can give with one look of his eyes are nothing short of brilliant. He’s so natural that he’s immediately sympathetic and easily relatable for any audience member. If it weren’t for any of these actors, my thoughts on the film would be significantly more negative. Take Dean Norris’ role, which is essentially a comic relief of sorts. If Dean Norris wasn’t in that role, nothing about that character would interest me or catch my attention, but since Dean Norris is in it, I am now desperate for someone to make a buddy cop movie with him and Chiwetel Ejiofor because the few scenes where they are working together are nothing short of amazing.
It doesn’t help the film that there is a twist (and later a “gotcha, here’s the real twist” moment) and if you’ve seen any number of crime dramas before, you know exactly what the twist(s) will be. That, plus the twist itself leaves a gaping plot hole (and mind you, I’m not normally a guy who complains about plot holes). It’s a hole that basically ruins all the conflict and dramatic tension set-up in the first half of the film. I won’t reveal what the twist is, but basically when it’s revealed, the reason the investigation was constantly being held up for so many years is completely invalidated and offers no reason as to why certain characters did not react to it. It’ll make sense to you (well…not really) when you actually watch it. It did make the ending feel underwhelming when I was hoping the film would go darker and more twisted, and instead it ends on a whimper that the film was hoping to be more poignant and meaningful than it actually is.
Secret in Their Eyes is far from a horrible film, but if there’s one thing that irks me the most when watching a movie, it’s seeing talent go to waste and this film is filled to the brim with it. I can see why Billy Ray thought this was an interesting story to tell, but perhaps there were some elements or cultural context from the original film that got lost in translation (I admit, this is purely speculative). It’s a film that gets more and more frustrating as you continue to think about it, especially in some of the beats in the final act. It’s a pointless movie that thinks it’s profound. The performances are basically the only thing that makes it passable, but otherwise, it’s a watchable, if generic and not particularly substantial film that in all likelihood won’t get the same critical treatment that the original film received. 55 / 100