Secret in Their Eyes
* * *
It may not have been necessary, but Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of the Oscar winning 2009 Argentine mystery about politics, love and a murder that takes its toll on a handful of inextricably linked characters, is certainly not without merit. An investigative procedural about ghosts of the past and the inability to come to terms with loss, this refashioned American outing addresses dual wars on terror—one domestic, the other intensely personal.
As a grim vehicle for a trio of star performances, the new version is compelling and sometimes smart. With a shrewd reframe set immediately post 9/11 (and unfortunately still timely), replacing Argentina’s Dirty War context of the original, Ray manages to make the material feel distinctly American, even if it does lift (and quite well) wholesale sequences from its predecessor.
No matter. With an emotionally ravaged, impressive Julia Roberts and intelligent turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes works mainly on movie star terms. You will hear a lot of sour grapes about this picture being a pointless American remake of a superior film, but pay that no mind—it is an engaging thriller, well performed.
It’s 2001 Los Angeles and FBI agents Jess (Roberts) and Ray (Ejiofor) share a desk and a supervisor, the new, Harvard educated assistant DA, Claire (Nicole Kidman). When Roberts’ beloved teen daughter is brutally murdered, their investigation is shut down after it turns out the prime suspect is also an FBI mole for counter-terrorism intelligence, too valuable to bring up on charges. Their boss, a politically expedient DA broadly played by Alfred Molina, buries the lead at every turn.
Weary Ray, who feels indirectly responsible for the murder, spends the next thirteen years hunting for—and ultimately believing he has relocated—the suspect (Joe Cole) that slipped through his fingers, obsessed with bringing him to justice.
But much has happened during this time. Jess has become a gaunt, haunted shell, having never recovered from the loss, while now DA Claire has her own reasons for wanting the case solved, and lingering personal feelings from unrequited love with Ray. This muted attraction forms the other story thread, and Ejiofor and Kidman, with their low-key chemistry, are superb charting very small, nuanced attractions that are never consummated.
Shuttling back and forth in time at a clip that can be dizzying and defined sometimes only by hairstyles (Kidman wears a pony tail in the present time while Ejiofer has salt and pepper), writer/director Ray’s well-paced picture is bolstered by his mostly involving screenplay, which accommodates an effective ensemble including Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) as a grizzled FBI agent and another agent, played by an oily Michael Kelly (House of Cards), who may know more than he is letting on.
Roberts is all-in playing this tortured character, always a breath away from tears and tough as nails in the final stretch. It may be an improvement in narrative investment that in this version she’s a mother who has lost a daughter; the original was a husband who lost a wife. Both Ejiofer and the regally elegant Kidman, who is warmer here than in ages and has real movie star allure, complete this triangle which is intriguing in numerous scenes where the three hash out their limited options for justice.
There are two sensational scenes in Secret in Their Eyes, the first an expression of shocking grief from Roberts, perhaps the grittiest of her career, and Kidman’s galvanic, take-down interrogation of the suspect, using come-hither sexual energy, emasculating insults and cerebral manipulations that put to rest any question about whether glamorous Claire has the mettle for the job.
In addition to this confession scene, Ray’s screenplay keeps most of the surprising ending intact as well as a stadium pursuit all but lifted from Juan Jose Campanella’s original (Campanella served as executive producer here).
Secret in Their Eyes isn’t without flaws—the times shifting structure can be a bit much to digest at times and the political context, and corruption, perhaps both overstated—and I was always aware that I was watching a version of a better film, but it works emotionally, and that’s what counts.