Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Secret in Their Eyes"

 2 / 5 

The corpse should be the only lifeless part of a murder-mystery, but that's not the case with Secret in Their Eyes, which is dramatically inert, with listless performances by its three high-profile leads, none of whom can inject a single spark of vitality into the draggy, slow-moving drama.

Granted, there are a couple of moments where Secret in Their Eyes almost resuscitates itself, but before it can get on its feet, it collapses again under the weight of its attempts to take a melodramatic potboiler and turn it into an Oscar-season contender.

It's based on a 2009 Argentinean movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  That film was made with vigor and urgency, not to mention bold and stylish filmmaking choices that included its deservedly famous single-take foot chase through a packed soccer stadium.

The Americanized version lacks any real cinematic ambition.  (The stadium scene is there, but is shot in a traditional, straightforward style.  Perhaps director Billy Ray is being smart by avoiding direct comparisons to the first; but like many of the changes, it leaves little left to exploit.)  Instead, Secret in Their Eyes tries to focus more on the human aspect of its central story.  In this update, the crime that launches the plot is the brutal murder of a young woman -- who turns out to be the daughter of an FBI terrorism task force investigator.  The investigator is played by Julia Roberts, a normally captivating actress who unfortunately mistakes a lack of makeup with dramatic intensity.  She's fine, but nowhere near as emotionally vulnerable or ferocious as her wan cheeks and sunken eyes might indicate.

Her co-worker (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who seems oddly indifferent to the role), is the first to see the corpse, which is found near a Los Angeles mosque that's under investigation in the months after 9/11.  (The movie was shot long before mosques and Muslims became the hottest, angriest, ugliest topic in American politics.)  They both work with a deputy District Attorney (Nicole Kidman), who helps them track down the terrorism suspect who may also have been the murderer.

Secret in Their Eyes moves back and forth through time, from 2002 to 2015, as the suspect is first released from custody, then becomes the subject of an obsessive sort of quest to bring him to justice.  Mixed in is an ill-fitting, unrequited romance between Ejiofor and Kidman, which never quite gels -- their years-long flirtation doesn't take the story in any new direction, either in terms of plot or theme.

Worse, the political underpinnings of the story don't go anywhere at all.  The original used the backdrop of Argentina's own political history, in which its government turned against its own citizens with deadly results, as a way to give structure and meaning to the drama -- it was a political thriller in the most literal sense.  In this version, there's no payoff; the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are mentioned over and over, but there's no critical eye cast on government or policy, not much more than some oblique references to the preening self-absorption of those who run for elected office.

With the exception of an effectively nasty interrogation scene to which Kidman brings some unexpected energy and fire, Secret in Their Eyes mostly meanders through territory that will seem awfully familiar to anyone who occasionally watches Lifetime or Dateline.  It's mostly presented with the same sort of detached recitation of facts as it moves from what happened in 2002 to the same characters in 2015 as they continue attempting to bring the killer to justice.

Ultimately, it leads to a third-act plot twist that feels less inspired than contrived.  Worse, the movie doesn't give the audience even a moment to feel surprised or comprehend what it all means because the big revelation is accompanied by countless flashbacks to lines of dialogue or portentous looks from a character that are the equivalent of the filmmakers screaming out, "You see? We told you what was going to happen and you didn't notice!  Aren't you shocked?"

They have to do this cinematic equivalent of screaming, because they realize it's more likely that no one noticed because the story just isn't really worth paying a lot of attention.  The revelations seem less surprising than a desperate final attempt to add some interest to an otherwise bland, dull story.

With such talented stars and a director whose previous films include the compelling and underrated gems Shattered Glass and Breach, it's all a bit of a letdown.  Ray has taken terrific source material and leeched the life from it, leaving behind something that bears a few tantalizing indications that it could have been a good idea, might have been interesting, but instead has refused to cooperate in the transformation process.  Instead it's become uncooperative, and stubbornly resists becoming the bold and essential American political thriller it could have been.  It just sits there, unmoving, lifeless and, most of all, unconvincing.

Viewed Nov. 20, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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