Thrillers that contain no thrills aren’t exactly a rarity in Hollywood. It comes as no surprise, then, that Secret in Their Eyes fails to quicken a pulse. More surprising is its complete inability to establish tone, mood, or any sense of escalating tension. Everyone, including writer-director Billy Ray and leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor, does acceptable work, but there’s just no pop here. The bar was simply set too high with Campanella’s 2009 Oscar Winner, making this tepid remake feel both ill-advised and ill-conceived.
“Passion always wins,” is an ironic mantra for Secret in Their Eyes considering what a dispassionate film it truly is. Perhaps a more accurate theme would be, “The past determines the present.” Every character seems doomed to travel the miserable path laid out before them. Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass) takes a clinical approach to tragedy that doesn’t help matters, either. Characters are smart until fate (i.e. the plot) requires them to do something stupid, while ancient passions smolder despite the lack of any discernible chemistry. There are deep, dark secrets connecting everyone in convenient, unlikely ways. Simply, this story is so concerned with protecting its big revelations that it forgets all about the escalation of drama.
Things start promisingly enough, as some sharp dialogue and slick flashbacks quickly establish what role each character will play in this simple revenge premise. Thirteen years ago, three friends in a Los Angeles anti-terrorist unit were rocked by a senseless tragedy. Jess (Julia Roberts) lost her young daughter to a vicious murderer, Marzin (Joe Cole). Ray (Ejiofor) becomes obsessed with making a case against Marzin, who just happens to be an irreplaceable informant inside a terrorist sleeper cell. Claire (Nicole Kidman), a new hotshot in the District Attorney’s office, is forced to straddle the line between justice and her growing affection for Ray.
For Ray, however, there are no lines. He conducts illegal searches, steals valuable evidence, and brazenly suggests murdering Marzin when the investigation doesn’t break his way. Not surprisingly, Ray’s style of justice doesn’t make many friends and he earns himself a one-way ticket to the dreaded ‘private sector.’ But that doesn’t stop him from obsessively scouring thousands of mugshots over the next 13 years, until he finally identifies the bail-jumping Marzin. He swallows his pride and crawls back to Claire, begging her to re-open the case and provide closure for a broken and adrift Jess.
Words can’t describe what a horribly unethical investigator Ray is. Were the material not played so heavy-handedly, his dogged disregard for the law would be hilarious. His unflinching willingness to expose colleagues to danger, including a disabled Dean Norris and a slimy agent played by the underappreciated Michael Kelly, is almost inspiring in a twisted way. The violations become so egregious, in fact, that the investigative storyline loses all credibility about midway into Secret. For a film that places such weight on being a gritty police procedural, it shows a comical disdain for both the police and procedure.
With the crime thriller now completely off the rails, the filmmakers turn to the “love affair” between Ray and Claire for some emotional heft. Like almost everything else in the second half of Secret, the romance simply doesn’t ring true. Watching these two interact is like watching two inept teenagers try (and fail) to muster the courage for a slow dance. Their inane banter never progresses past the ‘meet cute’ phase, with scintillating conversations ranging from lucky keychains to fashion magazines. How could people so observant in their professional lives be so blind to the obvious attraction between them? Simple answer: They wouldn’t be.
While Secret in Their Eyes may be hopelessly inept at establishing mood and tone, it does a reasonable job capturing a sense of time and place. Because most of the story is set in 2002, Billy Ray and his editor, Jim Page, can weave the paranoia and urgency of that time into their storyline. The fragility of a nation still haunted by 9/11 and bogus terror alerts gives the first act a major bump. Sadly, as the film wears on, this becomes little more than a plot device. If the filmmakers were trying to make a statement about the futility of vengeance by drawing parallels between Jess and the War on Terror, they needed a lot more thematic gumption.
The three main performances work well, though it’s odd that Roberts has so little to do. The byplay between Kidman, Roberts, and Ejiofor is the high point of the film, and you’re left wishing they had more scenes of import together. In fact, there are precious few showcase scenes for any of these talented dramatic actors. One noted exception is a stellar interrogation in which Kidman so thoroughly emasculates a suspect that it feels like we’re right back in Kubrick’s bedroom for Eyes Wide Shut.
Fans of Campanella’s original should probably just avoid Secret in Their Eyes altogether. While there are plenty of similarities between the two films, this one fails to capture any of the tension and urgency that most certainly inspired it. With its big stars and big budget, Secret must have looked like a sure thing on paper. That’s probably where it should have stayed.