Argentinian film The Secret in Their Eyes has been idling sloshing around my watchlist for a couple years now, buoyed by strong word of mouth and an Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film. But I decided to hold off after hearing of the impending American remake starring the likes of Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman. I figured I’d be more likely to write a fair review if I went in without prior expectations, able to judge writer/director Billy Ray’s take on its own merits.
I stuck to my guns, but despite keeping a fair distance from Juan José Campanella’s 2009 film – avoiding spoilers altogether – it’s hard not to notice the awkward construction of Secret in Their Eyes, the clumsy allegorical incorporation that betrays a retrofitted remake. You see, the core of this film is a pretty conventional thriller plot – cop’s daughter murdered, system allows murderer to go free, vengeance, inevitable ‘shocking’ twist – but Ray struggles so valiantly to shove the ghost of the World Trade Centre in the middle of things that the film is wrought asunder.
One can forgive Secret in Their Eyes for failing as a thriller, because you sense it’s not supposed to thrill. Why else would you build it as a bifurcated, twin-timeline narrative, where 2002’s desperate search for justice is deflated before it’s begun, doomed to failure by the realities of 2015 – where the killer got away scot-free? To compensate, Ray hones in on the War on Terror and the ramifications of September 11, endeavouring to present a complex commentary on grief and misguided revenge and holding on to pain and seeing enemies everywhere or…I dunno, something. It’s all very incoherent, and you don’t need to have seen Campanella’s original to recognise an incomplete, unsuccessful attempt to port one nation’s political commentary over to another.
It’s not merely the mawkish, over-emphasised way that September 11 is shoved in our faces that’s the problem. Though, to be fair, that is a huge problem. Our cast – Eijofor’s Ray, Roberts’ Jess, Kidman’s Claire – all work in counter-terrorism when the film begins. Ray and Jess are investigators staking out a mosque with some thoroughly 2001-era computers, while Claire is an ambitious lawyer working in the office in some sort of capacity (sorry, my knowledge of legal specifics are ..shaky). Just in case that setting wasn’t enough, we’re treated to radio stations blaring about the co-operation of domestic agencies tackling terrorism, posters emblazoned with Trade Centre wreckage, and even a crazy person literally yelling about terrorists in the street, his ravings drowning out the odd subtle touch (like the omnipresent American flag badges).
So what’s the real problem? I’d argue it’s that the allegory simply doesn’t fit, as though Ray is stubbornly thumbing a stray jigsaw piece into the wrong puzzle. Case in point: when said murderer (Joe Cole) goes free, thanks to the meddling of Alfred Molina’s single-minded D.A., Ejiofor is only able to locate the crim over a decade later by fastidiously poring over mugshots. As a representation of obsession, it’s a good ‘un. As an exemplar of America’s approach to the War on Terror – a war waged in increasingly invasive surveillance – it’s entirely incoherent. Granted, one can hand-wave away the specifics by observing that Ray lost his job around ’02 and had to work outside the system, but that doesn’t forgive the ineptness of the attempted commentary.
I suspect I’m making this film sound entirely awful. It’s not. While it might fall short of the brave commentary on contemporary America that it wants to be (there’s your pull quote, guys), it has it’s pleasures. Well, pleasure. To whit: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Dude’s one of Hollywood’s best working actors, and he beautifully underplays his character’s nervous equilibrium between obsession and integrity. The best thing about the screenplay is how carefully it milks the ambiguity around his motivations, and it plays to Ejiofor’s strengths. The physicality he displays in the role is subtly impressive; notice how, in 2015, he’s ever so slightly slower, quieter, shorter. But when he comes across his suspect, he unconsciously assumes this masculine swagger: he’s young again, he has purpose again. It’s brilliant stuff.
Shame he’s mostly let down by his co-workers. Ray’s direction is workmanlike and utterly forgettable; admittedly, aping Fincher’s style here would’ve been the easy way out, but I would’ve taken unoriginality over this bland, undistinguished photography. Nicole Kidman gives a breathy, porcelain performance that’s disappointing without ever being bad. She never accumulates the intended romantic chemistry with Ejiofor, but at least she nails a mid-film interrogation scene. Roberts, meanwhile, swings for the Oscar fences – lots of ugly-crying, angry stares, that sorta deal – but fades from memory as quickly as Daniel Moder’s cinematography.
You’re supposed to walk out of Secrets in Their Eyes pondering the moral ambiguity of America’s post-2001 geopolitics – I think that’s the intent, anyway – but the lingering message for me was: I should really just go watch the original film, huh?