Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Billy Ray
Stars: Alfred Molina, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dean Norris, Don Harvey, Joe Cole, Julia Roberts,Lyndon Smith, Michael Kelly, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Graham
Released: February 26, 2016 (UK)
There was a time when something like Secret in Their Eyes would have reigned supreme at the box office and likely been heralded as something of a dramatic force of nature that was brought to its emotional edge by three daring lead performances. There was a time when both Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman could have played these same roles in this same movie and it would have been a lot buzzier a film with bigger box office returns based off their names alone (more, of course, for Roberts as Kidman has never been much of a big money movie star). Unfortunately for Roberts this is not the world we live in anymore. Instead, we live in a world where the best hope you have of becoming something even resembling a cultural phenomenon is if you’re based off a comic book, young adult literary series, or have any other type of brand recognition/nostalgia factor you can tap into. When it comes to purely adult dramas like Secret in Their Eyes though, chances are slim of anything greater coming of your efforts unless you have David Fincher behind the camera. All of that said, this is a movie that is just fine. There are moments of potential greatness, of truly riveting material and the three leading performances, including a heartbreaking psychological exploration of the struggle for atonement in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character, that more than deliver, but there is nothing about the film that feels exceptional by the time the credits begin to roll. Instead, writer/director Billy Ray (who’s written The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips and the 2009 State of Play adaptation, but hasn’t directed a film since 2007’s Breach) has taken director Juan José Campanella’s 2009 Argentinian film of the same title that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (which I have not seen) and has adapted it for American audiences in a way that makes it feel more procedural than it should be given the emotional resonance of the situation at hand while never feeling as urgent or compelling as the original must have been to garner such praise.
We begin in present day Los Angeles as Ray Kastan (Ejiofor) returns to his old stomping grounds to meet with old friend and now District Attorney Claire (Kidman) to ask a favor of her. Once upon a time, thirteen years prior, Ray and Claire were newly acquainted associates working for the anti-terrorism task force that was established in the wake of 9/11. Claire was new to the city and Ray worked up an immediate affinity for the stunning lawyer. His best friend and co-hort on the task force, Jess (Roberts), naturally nagged him about his crush while encouraging him to work up the nerve to ask her out. Claire was engaged though, halting any plans of Ray’s to pursue his interest. Despite this unrequited love (is it? Maybe not…) the three formed something of a tight-knit team of up and coming investigators. It is when they received a call one day that a dead body had been found outside the biggest mosque in Los Angeles that things changed forever. Ray discovered that it was Jess’s teenage daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham), who had been brutally and inexplicably murdered. The film shifts back and forth between the present and the case that followed the horrific discovery thirteen years earlier. In the present day Ray has returned to Los Angeles given he’d left the task force shortly after Carolyn’s murder because he believes he’s found her killer. Over those thirteen years Ray became obsessive about the case, searching every day, through thousands of mugshots for the elusive murderer. With this new lead, Ray pulls in Claire, Jess as well as old friends Bumpy (Dean Norris) and Siefert (Michael Kelly) to help him track down the suspect and permanently resolve this case. Jess is pessimistic given she’s already seen her daughter’s killer walk away once under the provision of a lack of sufficient evidence against the perp, but Ray is so confident in his findings that the team can’t help but to grant him the opportunity to help each of them find closure.
I tend to love movies like this. They of course become more appealing as I get older, but as a high-schooler even I appreciated the thrill of something like A Time To Kill, Seven and Mystic River. Secret in Their Eyes holds that very 90’s-like quality close to its heart. It feels like something of that era and the fact half of the film takes place only a few years after that decade came to an end only helps it retain this aesthetic; putting the viewer in this certain frame of mind. Whereas these types of movies typically thrive on the strength of not only their story, but their mystery this film never feels like it earns any of the twists or revelations our detectives discover along the way. This is due largely to the fact the film simply hits the beats one after another without really telling us anything. Sure, we know that Ray is regretful, Jess has never recovered and Claire has settled into the life she planned just as she always expected, but beyond the initial, heart-wrenching scene where Roberts sees her daughter’s body in the dumpster for the first time we rarely feel anything substantial for these characters. This shouldn’t be the case as Roberts really commits (and not just physically, but emotionally as well) to the role of grieving mother, but the script makes Ray and Claire’s forbidden love more of a priority than the audience really coming to know Jess and how she’s dealt with this tragedy. Instead, the love story is made something of an equal to that of the core mystery. While both Kidman and Ejiofor are more than effective in their roles we never recognize a genuine spark between them that would seem to justify their love hanging over Claire’s marriage for the past decade. Denzel Washington was originally offered the role of Ray when Warner Bros. began developing the project in 2010. With the idea of he and Kidman one can imagine the type of back and forth they might share with one another, making this subplot feel as integral to the story as the script makes it, but without this connection the love angle ends up feeling unnecessary and more than anything takes away from the more riveting dynamics at play.
In the broad sense, Secret in Their Eyes is about a few haunted souls who can’t decide how to operate in life after a single event defined everything that came before and after it. No matter what their plans might have been before the death of Carolyn everything changed and/or was thrown out of whack afterwards. Claire has done the best at dealing with this as she more or less went on with her life as planned given she was the one least affected personally, but her co-workers are less sure of what to do or where to go. Clearly, there is some interesting ground to cover here, but the combination of Ray’s static direction and hodgepodge script that never even assures the audience our protagonists actually caught the right guy in the first place makes the execution feel sloppy with its only redeemer being that it’s also largely forgettable. It’s a shame, really, given the star power attached that also includes Alfred Molina, but alas, that’s not enough. We come to the end of the film and the presentation of not one, but two twists that, while I was only able to guess them in the minutes leading up to their reveal, never feel earned. There is even an editing technique used where we are reminded of all the subtle hints that were dropped along the way, but this feels more like a last minute decision rather than something that was meticulously planned from the beginning. And so, while Secret in Their Eyes might have once been the biggest release on any given weekend in 1996 it is now more akin to something people will pick up from a Redbox on a boring Friday night or come across late one night on TBS after watching an episode of 48 Hoursand craving something more along the same lines. There is no rhyme or reason as to why we find such entertainment value in these stories of murder, but they have strangely become something of a comfort food in the realm of television and movies.Secret in Their Eyes is perfectly fine sustenance that will hold audiences over and give them a few things to consider, but it will in no way satisfy a hunger or quench a thirst in the way something truly satisfying would. Unlike its characters who work outside the law, it operates strictly inside the box of countless movies we’ve seen many times before.