"Secret in Their Eyes," Written and directed by Billy Ray; with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole
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Should anyone who saw Argentinean director Juan Jose Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes,” winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, also watch the new American remake, which Campanella co-produced? This is a hard question to answer: Campanella’s film was an effective thriller, and so is the remake, directed by Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”), who also adapted the screenplay. Those who did not see Campanella’s film will find “Secret in Their Eyes” more sophisticated in terms of plot than most other thrillers of recent years. Those who did see the earlier picture, on the other hand, may be interested instead in how Ray changed the original screenplay to fit the expectations of the American moviemaking industry.
The narrative principle of both films is largely the same. Like its predecessor, “Secret in Their Eyes” unfolds on two different time planes, in this case separated by 13 years. The original, however, was more subtle, more elusive in its melodrama, and had a political dimension for which Ray does provide a replacement, but a less effective one. In Campanella’s film, the past is an era of political oppression that has changed by the time the movie arrives at its present. In Ray’s movie, the past is situated four months after the September 11 attacks, a moment of widespread paranoia. The police in Los Angeles, where the movie takes place, are sure that their city will be the next target for a terrorist attack. Preventing such an attack is everyone’s foremost priority; a garden-variety rape and murder become secondary in importance.
Another important change, which is supposed to render the American version more suited to a broader public, is that while in Campanella’s film the rape and murder in question are significant for the three heroes but have no personal bearing on them, in Ray’s the victim is the teenage daughter of one of the heroes, Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts). Jess is a police investigator who works for the office of the district attorney (Alfred Molina), who cares only up to a point that the daughter of one of his most devoted employees has died a violent death. This makes the plot more melodramatic and invites us to identify with the grieving mother.
Haunted by guilt
Because the daughter’s body is discovered in a dumpster not far from a mosque, which the police suspect is hosting subversive activity, the initial theory is that the murder was an ideological one. However, this quickly proves to be untrue. The identity of the killer is known, but the police – for whom the case is not a top priority – do not have enough evidence to charge him, and he is allowed to go free.
This fact becomes an obsession for the three main characters involved in the case: Jess, the grieving mother; Claire Swan (Nicole Kidman), a lawyer who joined the DA’s office shortly before the murder; and Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an FBI agent and a close friend of Jess’, who knew her daughter well. All three are haunted by some kind of guilt because of the murder itself and the inability of the police to bring the killer to justice. Ray has retired and spent the last 13 years trying to track down the murderer. In the movie’s present, he has found the man, who is still alive but living under a different name. Ray returns to his past in order to track the killer down and motivate Claire, now herself the district attorney, to reopen the case.
Claire is hesitant: She is not sure that Ray has correctly identified the man in the picture, and she still does not have enough evidence to convict him. Jess, as we will later find out, has qualms of her own about Ray’s plan to hunt down the murderer. But Ray is determined to do right by her daughter, even though he is no longer on active duty, which means that his work must be clandestine.
In Campanella’s film, the murder and the transitions between past and present were a way of examining Argentina’s mechanisms of government. In Ray’s version, by contrast, the private story dominates; the characters are less complex, and if Campanella’s film might be called a political thriller, the remake is simply a thriller. Under these circumstances, it’s rather odd that the movie fumbles the subplot, which deals with the old romantic tension that Ray and Claire never acted upon, but which neither the divorced Ray nor the unhappily married Claire can completely forget. We don’t believe this supposed passion for a second, perhaps not only due to the writing, but because Kidman’s chilly appearance cannot really convey much emotion anymore. Chiwetel Ejiofor, on the other hand, does his work with impressive restraint, and Julia Roberts, devoid of all glamour this time, uses the opportunity to show off her skills as a dramatic actress.
“Secret in Their Eyes” is a bit more shallow and shrill than Campanella’s movie (whose Oscar win surprised many and even dismayed some critics who did not consider it worthy of the prize). Still, the story is gripping, and the themes of guilt and obsession have a dramatic and emotional power, even if the result is less sophisticated than the original. The movie therefore succeeds in sweeping us in.
The paranoia shown to be part of the American past has a distinctly anti-Muslim tinge to it, even if we learn almost immediately that the murderer wasn’t Muslim and wasn’t acting out of political motivations. Another failing of the movie is that it does not say whether that paranoia, which kept the investigation from becoming a top priority 13 years ago, has abated since then. The film’s present simply ignores the issue – surely as relevant to police activity today as it was then.