Directed by: Billy Ray.
Written by: Billy Ray based on the screenplay by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ray), Nicole Kidman (Claire), Julia Roberts (Jess), Dean Norris (Bumpy Willis), Alfred Molina (Martin Morales), Joe Cole (Marzin / Beckwith), Michael Kelly (Reg Siefert), Zoe Graham (Carolyn Cobb).
The 2009 Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes, is a very good thriller – expertly crafted and written, with some genuinely surprising twists and turns along the way. No, it really didn’t deserve to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar that year – especially not with two masterpieces, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet in the running – but it wasn’t overly surprising, since I’ve long suspected that the Academy likes to give the Foreign Language Film Oscar to a movie that feels like a Hollywood film, just in a different language, and The Secret in Their Eyes certainly qualifies. Therefore, an American remake was probably inevitable – but really should have been a can’t miss proposition. Really, you don’t need to change much in the original to move to America, and you could follow along on its basic path and make a decent film. Somehow though, the remake isn’t able to do that – and the result is a dull, morose thriller. You may like it more if you haven’t seen the original – and therefore may be surprised by the twists and turns in the plot – but I doubt it.
The movie flashes back and forth in time between the present and 2002 Los Angeles. In 2002, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an FBI agent assigned to the D.A.’s office to track down terrorism suspects – and is currently monitoring a mosque that they feel may be a hotbed of extremists. His partner is Jess (Julia Roberts), an investigator with the DA, and they are close in and out of the office (not in a romantic way). They are called to a murder scene – because it’s right next to the mosque – and Ray is horrified to find out that the victim is Jess’ college age daughter, Carolyn. Although it’s not his job to solve the murder, he tries to anyway – and everything he finds points to one man – Marzin (Joe Cole) – but no one wants to move on him. He is a key informant at the mosque – and terrorism trumps rape/murder. As Jess seemingly falls deeper into depression and despair, Ray teams up with Claire (Nicole Kidman) the new ADA to try and make case. In the 2015 scenes, we find out something happened, and somehow the case went away – and Marzin disappeared. But Ray thinks he has found him – and wants help to bring him in.
The movie really should work – Ejiofor and Kidman are both extremely talented, but they completely lack chemistry in the movie – especially the kind the movie is going for, which ties them together over the years even though they haven’t seen each other in that time. This is one of the few roles in which I agree with Kidman’s critics – who say her face has grown too passive and non-expressive over the years, something I have disagreed with in the past, but agree with here. Roberts fairs the best of the three – it’s a smart bit of casting in a gender switched role from the original film, to cast America’s Sweetheart here – but the movie doesn’t push it far enough, and pretty much gives Roberts the same, one note of grief to play throughout the movie.
The writer/director is Billy Ray, who has written some good films before (Captain Phillips) and directed a few others (Shattered Glass, Breach). Here though, he seems on autopilot. The film ditches the class issue of the original, and replaces it with terrorism – which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the film doesn’t do anything with it. As a director, he follows the original’s lead, and stages almost everything at night – dark themes, dark visuals – but here the images are muddy and confused. If the original film is known for anything other than the ending, it’s for the amazing chase scene in a soccer stadium – the remake moves that to a baseball stadium here, but doesn’t stage it as daringly, so that it becomes yet another dull chase sequence.
The movie pulls out all the old tricks of the thriller – especially irksome was a montage near the end to replay the moments that you “missed” earlier in the movie that was an Ejiofor dropping his coffee cup away from being out of The Usual Suspects. What it doesn’t add is anything new – any real reason for it to exist. Yes, I know, there are many people who didn’t see the original, and never will, because they don’t want to read at the movies. Had Secret in Their Eyes been a decent copy of the original film that would have been fine. But it’s not a decent copy – it’s a pretty shitty one.