THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015, directed by Billy Ray, 111 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The Secret in Their Eyes, a new thriller opening today, comes to the screen with an impressive pedigree. A remake of the Academy Award-winning Argentinian film of the same name, it is helmed by director Billy Ray, coming off the Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips and co-starring two Oscar-winning actresses, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts. It is the type of noir-ish mystery that is a formulaic house of cards one would hope Hollywood could mount with some sort of efficiency. With Roberts and Kidman, two true movies stars now solidly middle-aged, cast in the leads I thought for sure we’d find some punchy sordid melodrama, like the vehicles made for Joan Crawford or Bette Davis in the 1950s when they were no longer fresh-faced starlets. Instead, too classy and timid to shock, too slack for Oscar bait, The Secret of Their Eyes is like an over-budgeted two-part episode of CSI, scaling down its star power to the size of crappy network television.
And although Roberts & Kidman are featured as co-stars, the film really belongs of Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave. He plays Ray, who goes from being an FBI agent to a stadium security chief over the twisty, flashback-ridden course of a story, which gives us two events unfolding for our characters over two time frames. We begin with Ray in the present, wanting to re-open the murder case of the young daughter (Zoe Graham of Boyhood) of his co-worker Jess. (Julia Robert in a dress-down role) Then we flashback 13 years (an office worker yelling, “Hey, the fax machine is down!” helps to send us back to that halcyon era) to the post 9/11-period, when Ray, Jess and the comely Claire (Kidman) first discover the murder. In trying to question a FBI snitch, the trio meet resistance from within the FBI.
Why was the main suspect being protected? Will Ray and ladies be able to track the killer down in modern L.A.? Yes, yes; everything you think is going to happen will happen, just without a glimmer of imagination or reality to distinguish the proceedings. Ray’s direction, with its ominous droning score and the hand-held camera begins to resemble CSI so strongly it approaches parody. It is nice to see some modern flash in a big screen thriller, instead we’re seeing a story with visuals that look like a fifteen year old TV show.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s very presence makes you feel like you’re watching something other than cable fodder. His sorrowful eyes are endlessly expressive and if he wants us to believe he’s driven to find this murderer because of plainly misguided feelings of guilt, you want believe him. Still, Ray’s principled manner make his casual roughing up of witnesses seem more like lazy crime-TV writing than a part of his character. And while it is shocking to see Roberts in off-the-rack fashions, her long, elegant features and underlying charisma make it hard for her to evoke a working woman suffocating with grief. Roberts’ performance stands at the cusp of the gulf between character actress and movie star, and it is a wide expanse.
Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts are both 47 years old and it is interesting to chart how their roles as actors and artists evolve over time. Where Roberts is looking to expand her range, Kidman seems oddly semi-stuck in time. At the risk of seeming ungentlemanly, the film brings undue attention to her physical looks. While Ray and Jess seem to age over this thirteen year span, Ms Kidman stubbornly remains a forty-seven year old woman, one whose superstar face seems vigorously transformed by medical science. Seeing a woman of her age act the fluttering newbie struck dumb by Ray’s soulful glances gives the performance the sting of an actor vaingloriously playing a role for which time has rendered her no longer suited. If an actor’s close-up is going to instantly set us pondering about surgical procedures, it would help if that was part of the character they were playing as well. Otherwise I end up feeling like the kid from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” unable to go with he flow.
The film’s endlessly grim veneer (has L.A. ever seemed so overcast?) smothers any sense of fun that might have survived, and its attempt to deepen the mystery by tying it to a mosque swarming with terrorists, in light of recent events, gives the film an arbitrarily neo-con edge. Is it my sense of nostalgia that makes me a little unaccountably sad to see my generational peers Kidman and Roberts making the middle-age years resemble mediocre TV drama? The saddest secret in their eyes is that the stars here look like they wish they were in a better, smarter film. I did too.