American “Secret” not so mysterious

Nicole Kidman in "Secret in Their Eyes." (STX Productions)

The appeal of the newly-released movie “Secret in Their Eyes” is not much of a secret. Producers cast some of the most bankable actors in Hollywood and  purchased the rights to remake the 2009 Argentinian blockbuster of the same name, which is arguably the most famous South American film of all time.

Devotees of “La Pregunta de sus Ojos,” the novel that inspired the Argentine film, will probably not go into this version expecting the same intrigue, sophistication and beautiful storytelling that garnered the original an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

And they probably shouldn’t — while fast paced and entertaining enough, the Americanized version lacks in depth what it overcompensates for in star power.

Mind you, the cast is hardly mediocre. All three leads, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiewetel Ejiofor — best known for his work in “12 Years a Slave”— are Oscar winners. Roberts, in what is maybe her least glamorous on-screen appearance yet, undoubtedly steals the show as Jess Cobb, the law-enforcing mother of a murdered child chasing her daughter’s at-large killer.

Her casting was, perhaps, meant to challenge audience preconceptions, as her character in the Argentinian version is a grieving widower (Pablo Rago) seeking vengeance for his fiancee’s murder. Her scenes are the most captivating, and often heart-wrenching — from her hysterical discovery of her daughter’s body in a dumpster to her violent outburst at Ejiofor, who plays her partner Ray, after he partially botches the investigation.

Ray is consistent with the Argentine lead (Benjamin Esposito) as a former federal agent obsessed with the case. Of the three characters, Ejiofor has the most screen time and brings vitality to his role, but his onscreen chemistry with Kidman, who plays Claire Sloan, his former boss and love interest, is virtually non-existent.

Kidman seems unable to decide if she wants to play the role as an American or Australian. Claire is supposed to be from Philly, but Kidman’s Sydney accent seems to pop up in every other scene. For much of the time it’s hard to figure out what the status of Ray and Claire’s platonic office romance is, as the film jumps back and forth between the present and the time of the murder, which occurred 13 years before.

Audiences will likely find themselves cheering Jess on when they see her crueler side, establishing their larger investment in her storyline rather than the heatless courtship between Kidman and Ejiofor.

Dean Norris more or less reprises his role as Hank Schrader from “Breaking Bad” as Ejiofor and Roberts’ junior partner in the investigation, Bumpy. It was often difficult to distinguish Bumpy from Hank, in the same way that Hank is often indistinguishable from any of the other countless law enforcement characters Norris has made a career out of playing — like the nuisance of a state trooper in “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Officer Collins in “Evan Almighty.”

His presence is still oddly endearing, though, and his playful banter with Ejiofor and Roberts is some of the more convincing dialogue in the movie. 

Billy Ray directed and wrote “The Secret in their Eyes,” his first project since writing the 2013 “Captain Phillips” screenplay, but has not directed a major motion picture since “Breach” in 2007. It’s clear Ray hasn’t learned much from “Breach’s” criticisms, as “Secret in Their Eyes” suffers from the same weak cinematography that garnered the former’s poor reviews. The cinematographer was Danny Moder, who — in addition to being Robert’s husband — often created action scenes with dark lighting and confusing camera transitions.

Ultimately, though, the movie redeems itself by accomplishing its job as a mindless thriller, keeping the audience interested in the story until the end with a quick-paced storyline that delivers captivating twists and turns. True to its Argentine parent, the final 15 minutes are the most gripping, with a similar twist that is equally as riveting.

Despite their similarities, Ray’s portrayal is unable to capture the spirit of his nation as the original did. “El Secreto de sus Ojos” was a masterful synthesis of murder mystery and neo-noir, poignantly addressing existential topics like evil, redemption and the meaning of life. Its contextualization in the Dirty War, the civil war that rocked Argentina in the early 1980s, allowed it to breathe life into the violence and lawlessness which remain a painful part of the country’s past.

Of course, the remake does make some attempt to incorporate American political memory into the plot by commentating on the post-9/11 hysteria of the early 2000s being counterproductive to effective law enforcement. The killer doubles as an informant for an unnamed intelligence agency, thus guaranteeing his freedom from legal prosecution and preventing justice for the family of the murdered girl.

Ray’s “Secret” does a poor job integrating this into the larger plot, however, and perhaps more noticeable not as inherently American as the original pertains to Argentine culture. Besides the loose references to 9/11, it’s also worth noting that Ejiofor and Kidman are both foreign actors, while the original “Secret’s” cast featured mostly Argentine actors, especially in Ejiofor and Kidman’s corresponding lead roles. 

The film will open this Friday alongside the second “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” installment, a bold move which may make its targeted $9 million grossing a bit overambitious. As a thriller, and in terms of entertainment, the movie isn’t unsatisfying, moving quickly as Ray and Jess get closer and closer to their suspect.

Whether you’re expecting it or not, the dark twist at the end alone makes it worth the watch, and Roberts’ stone-cold portrayal of a grieving mother is not quick to leave you. But let’s not kid ourselves. Besides the name and ending, “The Secret in their Eyes” shares very little with its rightfully-venerated predecessor.

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