Everyone loves a good mystery and the title promises a lot of it but, in the end, the only mystery of Secret in Their Eyes is how a premise so promising and a cast so talented could wind up with what amounts to as much intrigue as a filler episode of CSI. One that’s twice as long and even more unsatisfying to boot. It’s no secret that the film has an all-star cast with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman. The movie could be tedious, cliché, and unsubstantial and those three could knock it out of the park—also, it should be said that it was and they did.
The film is a remake of the Argentinean 2009 film El Secreto de Sus Ojos, winner of the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The original story is revisited by director Billy Ray, writer of the screenplay for Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games. The two films tell similar stories, both unfolding in two timelines. The original, however, begins in East Berlin in the 1980s while the latest version takes place in Los Angeles and begins just after 9/11. Ray (Ejiofor) was once a part of a tight-knit team of investigators and now thirteen years have passed since he’s seen them and he comes back with some news. He meets with his old supervisor, Claire (Kidman) who Ray greets with a fond look in his eye that is an early indication of past romance. Then we meet Jess (Roberts), who is strung out and weary—starkly contrasted against Claire’s professional, well-kept exterior. He’s found the killer of Jess’s daughter and he wants to reopen the case and finally bring the wrongful party to justice.
In the first flashback of many, Ray and Jess are together at their office a little over a decade before–Roberts’ signature smile appears on screen, indicating that everything is right with the world. Ray and Jess poke fun of their coworker Reg, played by Michael Kelly (Netflix’s House of Cards), who has all of the disdain and lack of charisma to be the villain and who also happens to be a generally unpleasant stick-in-the-mud. That’s when Ray meets Claire who, at the time, is a rising star in the investigative department. She is still just as professional and just as collected as she is depicted in the beginning of the film but she has a youthful vibrancy that her older self lacks. If we didn’t already see where the story was headed in the romantic department, there is a clear shot of Claire’s wedding ring which is obvious foreshadowing of a forbidden romance which is alluded to but it never actually comes to fruition. This is one of many examples that appear throughout the movie takes the route of telling rather than showing. We understand that there is to be a romance between Roy and Claire but it comes out of nowhere with no reason behind it making it feel lifeless and unnecessary.
The team is called out to do an investigation on a crime scene where a young girl has been thrown into a dumpster after she had been raped and murdered. Jess makes some jokes while they pull up their gloves and Ray walks cheerfully over to the dumpster when he identifies the body. Ray is shocked when he identifies the body and he tells Jess that it’s her daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). In this scene, Roberts is given the opportunity to show off her chops as an actor by clutching her dead daughter in her arms and screaming wildly with tears running down her face. Of course, we are all well aware of her talents and ability and there is not much to criticize her for. The scene, however, barely warrants such skillful intensity considering that we’ve just been introduced to her character and Carolyn has not yet been given even a second of screen time before we see her body. It seems almost unfair that Roberts is given such an underdeveloped role. The audience is rarely allowed to even see much of her and her daughter together but it we are well aware of how much she loved her due to her constant verbal reminders. Therein lies the common mistake of telling instead of showing which creates a barrier between the audience and Jess.
In a later scene when Kidman is confronting Carolyn’s killer, she gives a performance that is similar to Roberts’ in that her talent is contrasted against the emptiness of the role. Her ability to assume the role of aggressively manipulative seems almost effortless. She has a composed, shrewd intensity in her confrontation of the killer that is nothing if not memorable. There is a smooth transition from her by-the-book attitude to one that is cold, calculating, and manipulative. Any time she is on screen, she does not disappoint and this scene is no different but, again, this scene, or any other in the film, does not warrant such skill that she brings to the table and the conclusion to the scene vastly contrasts her skillful performance by being downright absurd and almost laughable. Throughout the film, she consistently demonstrates a sort of reliability exhibited by only the very best actors yet she is still stuck within the confines of ridiculous dialogue and a confusing character arc.
In a film full of secrets, everyone’s motives are, at some point, confessed, but they are hardly believable. The romance between Ray and Claire is one of the secrets the title guarantees and it is often referenced by Jess in flashbacks; eventually he confirms there is truth to it. There is no indication that they are truly in love besides their own declarations of passion. On that note, passion is mentioned many times over the course of the film yet the main emotion being portrayed is confusing sense of obsession. Ray rarely shows any feelings toward Claire other than an unexplained fixation, even claiming that she was the reason his marriage failed. Ray searched for thirteen years for Jess’s daughter’s murderer but the first person he seeks out is Claire for reasons we can only speculate.
Ejiofor, like Roberts and Kidman, exhibits his skillful ability to portray the character of Ray, though there really is not much to his character. Ray is like any other leading man, resourceful, determined, and clever but he is little more than that. In fact, his character is like any protagonist you might find in a crime scene investigation TV show while channel surfing. In every scene, however, Ejiofor proves himself more than capable. He is fully believable as the remorseful friend, full of regret who is also infatuated with a woman he can’t have. He is a strong and confident actor who brought everything he had to the part but it is difficult to appreciate such skill when it is being used to portray an unsubstantial character.
The film has all of the looks and talent to be a hit but it lacks the heart necessary to make it stand out against the crowd. It is hard to leave the theater without wanting more, not necessarily more from the story, which seems to drag on for hours, but more from the characters. Their motivations were lost in careless writing and muddled action sequences. Nearly every scene, more or less, is like this scene in that each actor whether it’s Roberts, Ejiofor, or Kidman give skilled and intense performances which are contrasted by the one-dimensional, unsubstantial characters they are portraying. They are all more than qualified for their roles—too qualified, in fact, almost to a point where they seemed trapped within the limits of their own stilted dialogue and undeveloped characters. The characters are not given a chance to breathe but, instead, their character arcs are forced along a very clear, neat path until it results in an inevitably underwhelming outcome.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
It is hard to truly go wrong with such a talented and expert cast but it is, at some points, downright painful to watch such talent go to waste. The characters which Roberts, Kidman, and Ejiofor portray do not require the skill they bring to it but that did not keep them from giving it their all. It’s no secret that they give every performance everything they’ve got, even if the film doesn’t deserve it and this one definitely does not.