Secret in Their Eyes (dir. Billy Ray)

Posted: December 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Secret in Their Eyes” is almost a great movie, and it would be if it weren’t so damn inaccurate about police work, didn’t telegraph its twists, and if Nicole Kidman’s character were developed in a way where you could compensate for the actress’s general coldness that she exudes in every role.  Since the film is a remake of an Argentinean film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, my guess is the original is a great film that possibly lacks the flaws which hold back the American version, but I have yet to see the original.  As it is, the American version is still quite a good movie.


The film intercuts between two time periods.  The first is January 2002, a few months after 9/11 where everyone is in a panic about possible terrorist attacks.  Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) are FBI agents working out of the L.A. District Attorney’s office watching a mosque that might be connected to a hidden terrorist cell. One day, they are called to a crime scene. A woman was raped, murdered, and disposed of in a dumpster in a parking garage next to the mosque.  The victim? Jess’s daughter.  After a small amount of investigation, all signs point to a man named Marzin (Joe Cole) being the perpetrator.  The problem is that Marzin is a confidential informant for the FBI stationed inside the mosque, and in the post 9/11 hysteria the potential to stop terrorism takes priority over everything, even the rape/murder of the daughter of one of their own. As such, the higher ups, including the local DA (Alfred Molina) do everything in their power not to touch Marzin.

The other time period is 2015, 13 years later, where we start off knowing that Marzin was never punished for the crime and that he disappeared shortly thereafter. Ray has been obsessed with the case ever since, and after looking through mugshots every night for 13 years, he stumbles upon the photo of man who has more than a passing resemblance to Marzin and matches up with how old Marzin should now be.  Ray wants to reopen the case, but the new DA, Claire (Nicole Kidman), who was a new assistance DA back in 2002 and whom Ray has been nursing an unrequited love for the entire time, doesn’t want to pursue it.  The film jumps back and forth between these two time periods gradually revealing details until we know what has happened and what is happening.


One of my favorite directors is Atom Egoyan, who makes films generally about people who are stuck in cycles of obsession, grief, and unhealthy rituals and habits.  “Secret in Their Eyes”, at its best, plays like an Egoyan film.  Nearly every character in this film is obsessed with something, or more than one thing: justice, revenge, love, etc.  They all hyper focus on something (a suspect, terrorism) to the exclusion of all else (the rule of law, the Fourth Amendment, basic ethics) which ends up ironically keeping them from their obsession, or resulting in the characters punishing and hurting themselves even more in the process.  The problem with the film is that this sometimes pushes the limits into the comical.  Are we really to believe, even in January 2002, that a DA would not pursue the rape/murder of one of their own because of a terrorism case?  Does Kidman’s character really need to have a weird habit with twirling her keyring?  Hell, are we really to believe that Kidman reciprocates Ray’s feelings when Kidman does nothing to communicate, in her performance, that she ever, at any time, felt anything for the guy?  Additionally, this film has a weird concept of law.  At one point Ray breaks into Marzin’s home and steals a piece of evidence.  Later, he’s worried about showing it to Jess because that would make it inadmissible as evidence even though it’d be inadmissible anyway as it was obtained illegally without a search warrant, probable cause, and was technically obtained in the commission of a crime by an agent of the state.  You don’t have to be a cop or in law school to know that’s whacky.


I think the problem here is that you have a less-than-talented writer/director, Billy Ray, attempting to replicate a film considered by many to be excellent, but just not having the chops to do so.  This film feels like not-untalented college drama class attempting to perform a well respected play.  The original play is so good, maybe even great, that not even the lackluster production can completely hide how damn good the play is.  I have a feeling the things about this film that I loved (the obsession theme, the political commentary, the almost-unexpected and original twist) are done exponentially better in the original film, but ported over to this version they still work enough to make this version really enjoyable, even if you can see the flaws in the stitching.


Billy Ray’s filmography before this is not impressive. He wrote the laughably unerotic 90s erotic noir “Color of Night”, the crappy blockbuster wannabe “Volcano”, the awful and incomprehensible “Suspect Zero”, the lousy “Hart’s War”, and a few decent films like “Flightplan” and “State of Play”.  “Secret in Their Eyes” is, admittedly, his best film, but one imagines that a much better director, like perhaps Egoyan, would have hit this out of the park.  As it is, the execution of this film is decent, and we’re treated to a pretty terrific performance by Ejiofor.  Also, I generally hate Julia Roberts in everything she does, but in this film she’s convincing as a pained and grieving mother.  It’s nice to see her play a role that’s not every other role she’s ever done (I don’t care that she won an Oscar from “Erin Brokovich”, that performance, and most of her performances, are the same damn performance. She has limited range as an actress).

I was fully invested in the story for the entire film, and it was an interesting mystery that was less whodoneit, or even whydoneit.  This is what-happened mystery.  In fact, the mystery isn’t really even what this film is about.  This film is about obsession: how it drives us, consumes us, eats us from the inside and kills us.  It’s also about how single events can have large ripples outside of that event that forever change the dynamics of many other people and events going forward.  This is a better-than-average film, but it feels like a great film performed by a repertory company. B+


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