Secret in Their Eyes is a movie with grand ambitions that are consistently just a tiny bit out of its reach. Based on the 2009 Argentinian film of the same name from director Juan Jose Campanella (Halt and Catch Fire, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) (which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), Secret in Their Eyes is a movie that tries from beginning to end but always ends up short of its target.
Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games), the film takes the story of the original Argentinian version and transplants it to America, trading the political environment of Argentina’s Dirty War for a shroud of post-9/11 paranoia. The story intercuts between two different time periods, 2002 and the present day, following three co-workers (two FBI, one District Attorney supervisor) as they tackle a deeply personal murder over thirteen years.
The three–Ray Kasten (Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor; 12 Years a Slave, The Martian), Claire Sloan (Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman; The Hours, Rabbit Hole) and Jess Cobb (Academy Award winner Julia Roberts; Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman)–struggle in the aftermath of the murder of Jess’ daughter.
Found bleached in a dumpster beside a mosque Ray and Jess were surveilling for potential terrorist activity, the young woman was raped and strangled. Despite being an FBI agent and not a homicide investigator, Ray launches his own investigation into the murder of his partner’s child, with the reluctant assistance of Claire, while Jess struggles to cope, but quickly encounters resistance from his superiors who are concerned that his work could compromise their investigation at the mosque.
Thirteen years later, the case has gone cold and Ray returns after years in the private sector with a new lead: he thinks he’s found the man who did it, a prime suspect in the original investigation who fled after being released due to lack of evidence.
The two time periods are shown concurrently, the film skipping between the two to tell its story. There’s a few little touches that could only been done with this format (seeing a detective with a cane in the present day who was perfectly fine in the past is a neat bit of foreshadowing), but for the most part, there’s absolutely no reason for the story to be told in such a fashion. The plot is slow, only gaining speed in its third act, and that pacing hurts the film. However, it rarely does anything approaching permanent damage.
A bigger problem is Billy Ray’s script, which struggles to find dialogue that it seems like real people would actually say. Billy Ray’s been blessed with an extraordinarily talented cast, all acclaimed actors who have proven their talent time and again but they stumble over the stilted wording of conversations and often fail to sound genuine.
The action can be similarly unbelievable. Ray’s off-the-books investigation is woefully generic, full of secret surveillance and shaking down suspects. He doesn’t follow the rules dammit, because this time it’s personal and while the audience sympathizes with the characters, especially Jess, Ray’s police work is so dull and by the numbers that it becomes difficult to care. It doesn’t help that his acquisition of evidence seems, at least to my untrained eye, highly illegal and inadmissible.
The film works much better on an emotional level, presenting a true real-life horror that no parent should ever have to go through. Billy Ray’s most successful moment as director is one of the first scenes, in which Ray and Jess are called to the crime scene not knowing who the victim is, because of its proximity to the mosque.
Ray goes to examine the body, and from the moment he looks over the edge of the dumpster, the scene becomes almost unbearable to watch. Ejiofor plays the shock and horror of the moment perfectly, and as he turns to walk back to Jess, Billy Ray keeps the camera on his actor’s face capturing the look in Ejiofor’s eyes.
Once Ray tells Jess the victim is her daughter, Robert’s performance is heartbreaking. Ripping the plastic gloves from her hands, she cradles her daughter, screaming almost incomprehensibly. It’s a brutal, raw moment and the film is never more successful than it is in that scene.
As a writer, Billy Ray seems to have a much better grasp of the emotional side of the story and that, combined with Robert’s incredible performance, keeps the film going in its most trying moments. He’s less successful, however, with the film’s role as a post-9/11 parable.
He tries to present a story about the prices that governments have paid in the name of international security, but he does so with such a heavy hand that it becomes overbearing. There’s a decent theme somewhere in that territory, but Ray is incapable of finding it. I can understand the instinct to keep the political aspects of the original story but the remake just can’t seem to strike those chords from the correct angle.
From a technical perspective, Ray does decent work as a director, especially in the final scenes but he never even attempts anything remotely approaching Juan Jose Campanella’s lauded and acclaimed five minute-long shot from the original version. I’m also disappointed in the filmmakers’ decision to alter the ending of the original slightly. Billy Ray’s version goes on for about thirty seconds to a minute longer than it needed to and that additional material severely undercuts the impact of the final scenes, in favour of a less confronting, less ambiguous conclusion.
Secret in Their Eyes is a remake we really didn’t need. The move to the United States is a transplant that the story has difficulty adapting to and the quality of Billy Ray’s script does a huge amount of damage to the film. Add in the poorly handled political subtext and a few too many missteps in the multiple time period aspect of the film and it’s easy to write off the thing as a failure in its entirety.
However, it’s not a complete failure. Ray nails the material on a more emotional level, with a ton of help from his overqualified cast, and the result is an odd blend of slow-paced mediocrity with a deeply affecting emotional undercurrent.