Julia Roberts in Secret in Their Eyes
Reimschuessel/ Splash News
In 2010 Argentinian thriller El Secreto de Sus Ojos won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, beating out A Prophet and The White Ribbon. It also did very good business for a subtitled import, topping $6 million at the box office, which means it found a considerable audience in the US. It did not need to be remade at all, so, naturally, it got an English-language remake just a few years later. The English-language version comes from writer/director Billy Ray (Not-Cyrus), screenwriter of The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips, and it’s not as good as the Argentinian original, but it’s not a total loss, either. For one thing, Ray preserves the original’s political edge by setting his version amidst post-9/11 paranoia, and for another, he’s assembled a stellar cast.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Ray Kasten, an FBI agent working in a special counter-terrorism unit alongside investigator Jess (Julia Roberts), and their District Attorney boss, Claire (Nicole Kidman). Ejiofor and Roberts—playing a role originally written for a man—are really good, and Roberts is the most grounded she’s been in a while. It’s not just that she’s playing frumpy with dowdy hair and no makeup, she really doesn’t Julia it up and make it all about her. Ray is actually the center of the story, as his failure to bring justice, and thus relief, to Jess eats at him over the years. As Jess, Roberts is there to be devastated by grief, and she does it very well.
Like the original, Secret operates on parallel timelines, though it’s moved much closer to the present, with one in 2002, and one in 2015. In 2002, Ray and Jess are called to investigate a body found in a dumpster next to a mosque they have under surveillance that is revealed to be Jess’s daughter; in 2015 Ray wants to reopen the case after finding a new lead despite leaving law enforcement. Through it all, Ray nurses a crush on Claire, in what turns out to be one of the film’s weakest elements. It’s partially that Kidman seems miscast—barring in one scene where Claire plays her suspect like a fiddle—and partially that she has zero chemistry with Ejiofor. He’s great at pining—so many soulful stares—but Kidman is a tougher sell when it comes to romance. She always has been, but it’s even harder in the post-face-freeze era. It’s hard to tell what emotion “sucking on an ice cube face” is supposed to communicate.
If you’re familiar with the Argentinian film, the remake will hold no surprises for you, but if you’re not, Ray’s version does a decent enough job with the thrillery twists and turns. The post-9/11 setting works, too, for the most part, though at this point we’ve seen so many TV cop dramas use the “moral compromise to preserve safety” thing as an excuse for letting bad people do bad things that it feels stale here. And because it feels like a rehashed plot from The Wire, it’s not too hard to see where the whole thing is headed. There’s not a lot of subtlety in the story, so if you’re even halfway paying attention, you’re probably going to figure it out long before the end. That takes some of the wind out the sails and the movie palpably loses momentum about halfway through.
But Ejiofor and Roberts remain so good throughout that they kind of pull it off anyway. Secret in Their Eyes is not a bad movie, but it’s not really good, either. It’s kind of okay, mostly only interesting if you’re a really big fan of either Ejiofor or Roberts and have to see everything they’re in. It’s not compelling enough to justify the cost of a movie ticket, but you could do worse for cable viewing. That’s about this movie’s level—Saturday night cable option.