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April 4, 2016

Secret in Their Eyes

by Franz Patrick


Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the masterful film “El secreto de sus ojos” by Juan José Campanella, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the execution of plot, pacing, and tone, but it is anchored—somewhat—by three highly watchable performances. If one had already seen the modern-classic Argentine thriller, there is not much to see or learn here.

The crime-drama revolves around a murdered teenager whose rapist and killer (Joe Cole) goes free after high-ranking men in the FBI determine that he is too valuable an asset, a snitch, within a potential terrorist group—despite the fact that the deceased was the daughter of one of their very own investigators, Agent Jessica Cobb (Julia Roberts). Cobb’s partner, Agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), demands that justice be served and so every day for next thirteen years, he devotes himself to looking through endless records with the hope of finding the whereabouts of the killer who had been set free.

The screenplay is not sharply written and so the movement between past and present comes across as jarring, careless. It merely relies on the characters’ different hairstyles and graying hair so audience can discern which timeline is up on screen. Many viewers are likely to end up confused. Such a superficial approach is frustrating especially since the material pretends to be more intelligent or compelling than it actually is. A more subtle picture would have chosen to show how experience hardened the characters over physical characteristics that come across as silly and fake in the first place.

Tension is absent during Kasten’s investigation. There is a scene where Kasten and a fellow cop (Dean Norris, severely underused) sneak into the home of a potential suspect. The failure of the scene is due to the filmmakers not taking the time to get us to feel nervous for the cops for doing something that could potentially destroy their case. The camera moves quickly. Cuts are generously employed. Moving the camera slowly and having minimal cuts would have made all the difference.

It goes to show that the writer-director, Billy Ray, does not thoroughly understand his film’s direct inspiration. “El secreto de sus ojos” is about perspectives. The plot involves a murder, a fierce investigation, and the passions of those people involved. But these elements are not what that picture is about.

The Argentine film plays with perspective as it uses characters like chess pieces. As we observe the chess pieces make their intelligent, risky, nail-biting moves across the board—with each piece always having something interesting or compelling to say or do—we lose track of the possibility that we, too, are getting played. That key understanding separates a great film, one that will stand the test of time, from a project that is mediocre at best.

Still, Ejiofor, Kidman, and Roberts try to do the best they can with the material. Although Ejiofor and Kidman do not share much chemistry, which is a significant problem because their supposedly complex relationship is the heart of the material, at least each of the three gets at least one specific moment to shine. Out of the trio, Roberts is the strongest, particularly during scenes when she must balance a mother’s sorrow and rage alongside a cop’s disappointment of the system that gets more than one chance but consistently fails to provide her daughter justice.

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