'Secret in Their Eyes'
‘Secret in Their Eyes’ is the latest in the seemingly endless stream of remakes of foreign films that fail primarily due to redundancy. Like ‘Oldboy‘ or ‘Let Me In‘ before it, Billy Ray’s new movie is not without its charms. However, it never provides any sense of how or why this version of the story should exist aside from the removal of subtitles and the addition of American movie stars.
It’s a tedious act of recycling. More than that, it’s a film that should be presented as a mainstream thriller but has needlessly been elevated to somber melodrama in the hopes of courting a serious reception augmented by awards and nominations. Thankfully, that likely won’t happen. This thing just doesn’t work either as a remake or as a standalone effort.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Ray, a detective haunted by a former case. In the early 2000s, he was working on an anti-terrorism task force when the teenage daughter of his partner Jess (Julia Roberts) was found murdered. Ray was determined to solve the crime. Unfortunately, the case wasn’t under his jurisdiction, nor should he have worked on it due to a personal connection that clouded his judgment. However, against the advice of his boss (Alfred Molina), Ray relentlessly pursued the case along with the help of a plucky partner (Dean Norris) and a district attorney (Nicole Kidman) whom he was hopelessly in love with. Years after the failed and messy investigation, Ray returns determined to reopen the case and the old wounds of everyone involved.
Writer/director Billy Ray (‘Shattered Glass’) sticks closely to the original structure of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner. The clever intercutting between multiple timelines and devastating denouement remain intact, along with the major set-pieces. New takes arrive in the alternate gender casting of Julia Roberts as well as her character’s personal connection to the crimes, which at least in theory is supposed to raise the emotional stakes. On top of that, Ray cleverly shifts the political climate to post-9/11 anti-terrorist investigations, which works rather well as a shroud of tricky morality (although the ease with which that setting replaces the Dirty War backdrop in the Argentinian original proves that the political subtext of both films is essentially superfluous). Unfortunately, everything Ray does to change the original story feels like little more than window dressing. It never re-invents the tale in a meaningful way. This is very much a needless retelling.
The cast are quite talented and do their best, particularly Ejiofor’s painful depiction of fruitless obsession, Roberts’ devastatingly damaged portrayal, and the ever-underrated Kidman (who has one spectacular scene forcing a confession through unconventional means). Even so, their good work is ultimately undermined by Ray’s passionless filmmaking. The director puts so much emphasis on treating this material with serious intent that he robs all sense of entertainment out of his thriller. Sure, the movie has some heady themes and complicated morality, but they can speak for themselves. They don’t need a filmmaker forcefully reminding his audience that what they’re watching demands to be taken seriously despite all the suspense and chase sequences.
This never needed to be a joyful movie. (Certainly, the original is a big ol’ downer.) However, there’s no need for filmmakers to be ashamed of the fact that they’re making thrillers and desperately try to trick audiences into thinking they’re watching a serious drama. That only undermines the big plot twists and set-pieces, taking moments that should be shocking or satisfying and transforming them into dreary slogs.
Perhaps that’s the most frustrating aspect of ‘Secret in Their Eyes’. This sort of adult thriller should be considered mainstream entertainment, like ‘Gone Girl’. Yet now the business has relegated most of these genre efforts to prestige movie status unbecoming of cheap thrills. There’s nothing wrong with a thriller being dark or slipping in subtext. However, when those traits dominate the filmmakers’ intent to the point that all sense of genre entertainment is played down through shame, something is wrong. There’s nothing entertaining about ‘Secret in Their Eyes’, and that’s a major problem. It would be another thing if the movie failed purely because it couldn’t live up to the original. The fact that it’s also annoyingly dull is pretty much unforgivable. This is a waste of talent on a variety of levels.