Secret in Their Eyes (2015) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Alfred Molina, Joe Cole
Director: Billy Ray
Screenplay: Billy Ray (based on the film, "El Secreto de Sus Ojos" by Juan Jose Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri)
Review published December 1, 2015
Terrific actors can't save this Hollywood remake of the Best Foreign Language film from 2009, Argentina's "El Secreto de Sus Ojos", which itself was based on screenwriter Eduardo Sacheri's novel, "La Pregunta de Sus Ojos" (The Question in Their Eyes). It's very similar in its twists, although this version changes the extenuating circumstances from political corruption stemming from Argentina's "Dirty War" to the American war on terrorism in post-9/11 paranoia. It also puts a more defined connection between the victim's immediate family and the detective who is working on the case, which makes the emotional pursuit of the criminal all the more immediate. That's well and good, but the farfetched elements of the plot eventually makes the story unravel by trying to manufacture more than what's necessary, rendering it all as artificial and gimmicky by the halfway point.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Martian, Z for Zachariah) stars as Ray Kasten, a Los Angeles-based counter-terrorist Federal Agent turned private investigator who becomes obsessed with solving a rape/murder case from 2002 of the teenage daughter of his partner on the task force, Jess Cobb (Roberts, August: Osage County), to the point where he's been looking high and low for the man he is sure is the perpetrator for over 13 years. Kasten is sure early on of who the prime suspect should be, but because he is providing intel on a mosque near the murder scene after the events of 9/11, law enforcement sees him as too important an informant to touch without sound evidence. After he seemingly slips through their fingers, many years later, tenacious Kasten is sure he's found finally his guy, currently in prison, and begs District Attorney and former colleague Claire Sloan (Kidman, Paddington) to reopen the case. Again, lack of sufficient evidence is an issue, and she doesn't want to put Jess through the ringer again without being sure. But Ray is convinced, and refuses to let things go, especially as he has spent nearly every free waking hour in getting this far.
Ejiofor is always a marvel to watch, especially in carrying the weight and determination of the character without making him seem like a plot construct. In support, Roberts gives one of her better performances in years as the grieving mother, going all out to make her character look sullen and without any glamor, as compared to the alluring Nicole Kidman, who provides a sort of unrequited romantic interest for Ejiofor in a needless subplot. Kidman is fine, performance-wise, but is too 'Hollywood' for the role (plastic surgery and a boob job, among other things), and doesn't share very good chemistry with Ejiofor, leaving their flirtations and understated love feeling fleeting and inconsequential, especially given how ling he's carried a torch for her.
And then there are plot developments, each piling on top of one another uncomfortably, involving such things as self-published comic books, worship of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the size of the perp's penis. The more you learn about the case, and the more you see the suspect, the less sense it begins to make. Writer-director Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass) jumps the nonlinear timeline back and forth between 2002 and 2015, and a few stops in between, as we piece together the puzzle, with the only indicator of time gone by determined by the hair styles that go gray or bald from the characters. Your mind will likely be working overtime to piece what year we're in from scene to scene, which may be fine as that goes, given that the mystery at the story's heart lacks enough vitality to stimulate on its own for a two-hour duration the way it's presented.
Underneath the hard-to-swallow machinations in the plot, a more observant film about the conduct of law enforcement in the United States, which favored revenge, as well as the immediate incarceration and harsh interrogation of alleged perpetrators in Guantanamo over the justice system, but the movie concentrates more on the stuff that seems to matter less, such as the goo-goo eyes shared between Ray and Claire, and why they didn't start dating way back when. Ultimately, Secret in Their Eyes asks more question than it answers, most notably in why the 2009 film needed to be remade to begin with. I suppose there's an irony to this film, as the ending is revealed, about how much of one's time has been squandered in order to get to the bottom of a mystery that, in the end, isn't really worth the energy and expense it takes to uncover.
©2015 Vince Leo