A decade ago it would have been difficult to imagine Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman sharing top billing for a movie; however, in 2015, it’s hardly a surprise that the pair of iconic 90s stars – alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor – are stuck in a tepid remake of 2009’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner El Secreto de sus Ojos (which translates to the English title Secret In Their Eyes).
For those unfamiliar with the original, it takes place in a world of departmental obstacles and corruptive cover-ups and follows a man named Ray (Ejiofor), who enlists the help of Claire (Kidman) to seek justice for their colleague Jess (Roberts) after her daughter’s dead body is melodramatically discovered in a dumpster.
Set amongst a team of counter-terrorism investigators, the plot alternately unfolds in 2002 – in the aftermath of the murder and paranoid wake of the 9/11 attacks – and in the present day, 2015 – as Ray asks Claire, newly elected District Attorney, to reopen the murder case. As a means of injecting suspense into the story, Secret in Their Eyes will ramp up the tension in one timeline and then shift back to the other one. Unfortunately though, the uncomplicated mystery behind who killed Jess’s daughter never creates an urgent need for answers.
Whether it’s an attempt at relevancy or simply to add additional layers to the thin plot, Secret in Their Eyes tacks on several semi-realized subplots, mainly one that tangentially involves terrorism. Ray finds that his work to track down the killer is consistently undermined by his colleagues and superiors, who warn him that the investigation is outside his jurisdiction. It turns out the murderer might be connected with a mosque that Ray and his team have been investigating – home of “the largest sleeper cell in Los Angeles,” surprisingly not advertised on any of their brochures – and that certain co-workers are a bit too eager to throw Ray off of the killer’s trail.
There’s also some strategic political ascendancy and a half-baked, unfulfilled romance between Ray and Claire, but the execution lacks enough detail to become intriguing. The film serves one plot at a time and focuses its efforts on the pulpier, revenge thriller aspects of the story. There’s little nuance and a lot of sternly delivered dialog. All of the characters are one-note, with easily defined motivations and little complexity.
Thankfully, the excellence of the movie’s central cast elevates the very plain writing. Ejiofor lends his commanding presence to a character whose unwavering resolve evokes the brilliance of his 12 Years a Slave performance, albeit in a lesser role. Kidman, without much to do in most scenes, plays Claire as a woman that lets words get caught in her throat. There’s a deliberate nature to her dialog, noticeably choosing her words with care. Michael Kelly (House of Cards) and Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), meanwhile, are also charming in their ancillary parts.
It’s Julia Roberts’s performance as the grieving, tortured yet composed Jess that steals the spotlight though. She appears disheveled and worn down by the awfulness of her character’s circumstance; yet, there’s a resilience to the way Roberts carries herself. The actress is rarely asked to act with such restraint, and it’s refreshing to see Roberts often downplay the role of Jess. The character is simultaneously vulnerable and strong, bearing a noticeable burden but determined to move forward.
Writer/director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, screenplay for The Hunger Games – the latest installment of which is set to beat Secret in Their Eyes at this weekend’s box office) takes too much time to set up the pieces. It’s nearly an hour into Secret in Their Eyes before the story becomes about more than just a murder. Often, the film devotes unnecessary screen time to “Hellos,” “Goodbyes,” and, “Let me walk you to your cars.” There’s far too little happening in the early stages of the film to ultimately become invested in Ray, Claire, et al. grasping at straws.
The movie’s dour ending redeems some of Secret in Their Eyes’ earlier listlessness, but it’s not the type of shock that this film needs from that moment. Much of the action – from unveiling new information to a notable character’s death – lacks the dramatic weight to have an impact. Billy Ray manages to tie the elements together, but the puzzle isn’t enjoyable to assemble or very difficult to solve.
A stellar cast and compelling final twist is not enough to redeem the languid pace or uncomplicated mystery behind Secret in Their Eyes.