Screened Out – Secret in Their Eyes

By : Stephen Miller
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Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman

Good psychological thrillers are extremely difficult and rare.

They need great acting, sure, and this one has that. They also have to exist in that thin area between thrilling and plausible, between surprising and unbelievable.

There are some illuminating moments in Secret in Their Eyes – most of them are provided by Roberts. Then there are many scenes that veer into drippy melodrama and even farfetched camp. The film ends up feeling like a Dennis Lehane novel (Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River) kidnapped by over-the-top director Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In and Bad Education). Your love of Secret will depend on how you feel about mashing these disparate styles together.

Nicole Kidman's and Chiwetel Ejiofor's choppy romance bogs down the primary crime story.

Nicole Kidman’s and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s choppy romance bogs down the primary crime story.

In 2002, Roberts and Ejiofor are part of a new team within Homeland Security, probing the L.A. area for possible threats. Kidman is a young prosecuting attorney just hired to their office. Together, these three sit with the police department’s homicide and investigations departments.

This is what the Homeland Security funding allowed – officers in local precincts. The movie does provide an interesting perspective on how federal and local bureaus worked together. It also represents the closeness of work relationships.

Roberts’ daughter is murdered, her body disposed of in a dumpster outside a mosque – it’s a particularly grisly killing. The likely suspect is Homeland Security’s local informant. Roberts, Kidman, and Ejiofor spend the next 13 years figuring out how to catch the perpetrator; they must work around federal investigations and office politics.

Secret has a beautiful sense of time passing. You can see the damage the gory tragedy has had on Roberts’ face and demeanor. Her work here reminds us that she may not be the strongest character actor in the world, but she can certainly sell some tough emotions, including grief and its lingering damage.

Director Billy Ray may nor make the perfect film, but he still shows he's one to watch.

Director Billy Ray may nor make the perfect film, but he still shows he’s one to watch.

Both Ejiofor and Kidman turn in solid portrayals, too. Ejiofor is the loyal and haunted partner, and Kidman the politically minded, by-the-books lawyer. Unfortunately, Ejiofor and Kidman are saddled with a clumsy workplace romance. It’s made worse by soap opera editing, cutting away to another scene just as something juicy is revealed.

The murder plot takes some messy, unexpected turns, leaving for an unusual ending. That’s either going to delight audiences with its surprise or leave them shaking their heads at the dubious affair. I fell into the latter camp. If one thinks about the characters, it’s easy to call some of these turns “plot holes.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the director/writer Billy Ray. He helmed the excellent Shattered Glass. He’s also the screenwriter for some solid works – the first Hunger Games, Captain Phillips, and State of Play. Here, he’s adapting an Argentinean novelist’s book The Question in Their Eyes. It already made a good foreign film that also strained credibility. In Americanizing it, Ray never quite balances the Latin culture’s love of hyperbole with the realistic, hardboiled crime setting.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

I’ve been a vacillating fan of Julia Roberts. Sometimes I love her; sometimes I’m frustrated by her lack of versatility, especially when she doesn’t utilize her gift for subtlety. Here, she totally owns this part; she had me believing right up until the very end.

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