REVIEW: Secret in Their Eyes

Image Courtesy of STX Entertainment

In 2010, a film from Argentina named The Secret in Their Eyes won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards. I have not seen it. In 2015, a film from the United States named Secret in Their Eyes was released in theaters. I saw it. I wouldn’t usually lead with the fact that the latter is a remake, but in this case it helps explain why it fell flat for me.

American remakes of foreign films are rarely as good as the originals. This is largely due to the fact that the specific situations are unique to their locales. There’s something about the setting which contributes to the story to make it special, and that’s the very same element that doesn’t usually translate to another country. When removing the story from its setting, it’s hard to make it relevant in another.

This may not seem fair since I’ve never seen the original movie; however, there are enough other things wrong with Secret in Their Eyes that make it a safe assumption. To start with, it’s an odd set-up. In the days following 911, a counter-terrorism task force is established in Los Angeles with a strange combination of roles: a lawyer, a police officer and an FBI agent, among other unidentified law enforcement professionals.

When the police officer’s (Jess, Julia Roberts) daughter is found raped and murdered in a dumpster next to a mosque that’s under investigation, the events surrounding the search and capture of the perpetrator become an obsession for the members of the task force and link them for the rest of their lives. Because the suspected killer is a snitch, the suits supervising the case want to protect him, regardless of his crimes.

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Naturally, Jess wants to take matters into her own hands; however, she has enough sense to know how the system works. The FBI agent, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), does not. He goes rogue to catch the guy. A late revelation reveals why he’s compelled to do so, but it doesn’t seem like a significant enough reason to potentially destroy his career and others’. He’d be better advised to simply get over it.

The lawyer, Claire (Nicole Kidman) originally doesn’t have much to do with the case. She’s the newest member of the task force and exists merely for Ray to drool over. Here’s where the subtlety of a foreign film is sacrificed by a remake’s inexplicable need to make things obvious. We can’t figure out on our own that Ray has feelings for Claire; all the characters around him have to vocalize it for us.

Thirteen years later, Claire is District Attorney and becomes an integral part of the story when Ray thinks he has finally located the killer, Marzin (Joe Cole), and asks her to re-open the case. In the meantime, Jess has become Claire’s lead investigator and happens to walk in her office during her conversation with Ray. Learning this new information, Jess can’t, of course, be further involved. Right.

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Secret in Their Eyes takes place in two time periods. It wants to unravel its mystery from the present by judiciously revealing information from the past. Why does Bumpy (Dean Norris) walk with a cane in the present? Well, he made a dangerous jump while chasing Marzin in the past. It all seems heavy-handed and deliberate instead of unexpected and surprising. Maybe we’ve seen the formula executed better too many other times, particularly on high-profile cable TV shows.

At times, the back and forth can be confusing, but I have a tip for figuring out what year is being shown. Look at the hair. In the past, Jess has a shoulder-length cut; in the present, it’s up. In the past, Ray has completely black hair; in the present, there are specks of grey. In the past, Claire… uh… Claire looks the same in the past as she does in the present. In the past, the other characters have hair; in the present they don’t. Watch particularly for bad wigs that Bumpy and Siefert (Michael Kelly) sport.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Secret in Their Eyes is Ejiofor as Ray. It’s an overly dramatic performance that doesn’t seem realistic. On the other hand, Roberts as Jess is the best thing about the movie. She delivers a heartbreaking performance and physically looks “a million years old” in the present, as Ray tells her. She best makes the transformation between past and present and demonstrates a realistic before and after appearance and personality.

If Secret in Their Eyes did anything for me, it’s to make me want to see the original Argentinian movie. Again, that may not seem fair, but it is fair to say it left me longing for something more. People may be talking about a big double-twist at the end, but it unfolds so casually, it may as well not be a twist. Ironically, in a movie with no subtlety, its big payoff is too subtle.

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