Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Theaters: SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

(Spain/US - 2015)

Written and directed by Billy Ray. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Don Harvey, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, Patrick Davis, Ross Partridge. (PG-13, 111 mins)

Juan Jose Campanella's 2009 Argentine thriller THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES dealt with the reopening of a 25-year-old murder case that was hindered in its initial stages by the tumultuous political upheaval of 1970s Argentina. It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and is the source for the THE-less English-language remake SECRET IN THE EYES, written and directed by Billy Ray, who previously helmed SHATTERED GLASS and BREACH and whose CAPTAIN PHILLIPS screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination. SECRET '15 makes some major changes to the story (though Ray does restage the original's much-ballyhooed soccer stadium zoom at a Dodgers game) and works fine for a good chunk of the way. But then it starts collapsing under the weight of too many contrivances and coincidences, and a third-act twist that's just too ludicrous to accept, though it does give us a brief preview of how an Oscar-winning, A-list actress might handle a 1960s-inspired Bette Davis "horror hag" renaissance in another 25 or so years.

Alternating between 2015 and flashbacks to 2002, the film opens with former FBI agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), now the head of security for the New York Mets, arriving in Los Angeles to visit district attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman). Claire was an assistant D.A. in 2002 when Ray was on loan from the FBI in the months following 9/11, working a joint anti-terrorism task force with L.A. cops Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts), Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris), and bootlicking department company man Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly). They were part of a post-9/11 surveillance operation on a mosque believed to be housing a sleeper cell when a young woman's body was discovered in a dumpster adjacent to the building. The dead girl turned out to be single mom Jess' high-school senior daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). Devastated by Jess' inconsolable grief, Ray disregarded his own job and the orders of D.A. Morales (Alfred Molina) and conducted his own investigation after seeing a suspicious-looking young man (Joe Cole) staring at Carolyn in photos taken at a police department picnic. Nobody seemed to know who the kid was until Siefert confessed that his name was Marzin, and he was his snitch inside the mosque. With the department and Morales' office deciding that preventing another 9/11 trumps bringing Carolyn's killer to justice, the case against Marzin was buried and he was declared "untouchable" and set free, with Morales and Reg opting to instead railroad a mentally-incompetent Muslim (Amir Malaklou) for the murder.

But Marzin vanished shortly after, and Ray has spent 13 obsessive years tracking him down and he's finally found him, recently paroled, sporting a new nose and the name Beckwith. Claire is now the D.A. (Morales is now the governor) and is hesitant to reopen the investigation. Jess agrees, a broken shell of what she once was and having thrown herself into her job, concluding "I don't think I can stomach seeing him walk away again." Ray won't let it go and along with a hobbling Bumpy, now on desk duty and using a cane after suffering a serious knee injury in a 2002 pursuit of Marzin, and against the wishes of a sneering Reg ("Hey, Ray...the Mets just called and they need you...somebody stole second base!"), goes rogue in pursuit of "Beckwith."

When SECRET IN THEIR EYES focuses on the dual-timeline investigations in 2002 and 2015, with director Ray and editor Jim Page doing a fine job of handling the back-and-forth time element, it's a thoroughly engaging thriller with some potent observations about the post-9/11 War on Terror that ultimately get cast aside as the story progresses. It's got a sturdy foundation in the always-excellent Ejiofor's commanding performance as a man haunted by regrets--he was supposed to meet Carolyn at a bakery to pick out a cake for Jess' surprise birthday party, but he was swamped with work and blew her off, and two hours later, she was found dead in a dumpster. His obsessive pursuit of Marzin--spending several hours a night for 13 years in a needle-in-a-haystack search combing hundreds of thousands of mugshots in the parolee database hoping to find Marzin using an alias--is fueled more by guilt than a sense of legal justice. Ejiofor and Norris make a great team who deserve their own buddy-cop movie, but the romance angle between Ray and Claire is half-baked and eventually fizzles completely. It's not helped by Kidman's stilted, zombified performance--she's just not good here, aside from one terrific 2002-set scene where she just shreds Marzin, emasculating him in the most cutting ways imaginable. It's almost enough to redeem her otherwise weak performance, though it's a mystery why she does so well in that scene but almost seems under hypnosis in the rest of the film.

In what amounts to a supporting role, Roberts has a couple of Oscar-baiting breakdowns as the devastated Jess, but is solid throughout and keeps it real, looking like she hasn't slept in weeks and going without makeup and with unflattering bangs in her frumpiest and least-glamorous role this side of MARY REILLY ("You look a million years old," Ray tells her at one point).  It's decidedly not a standard "Julia Roberts" role and those expecting a Roberts starring vehicle will likely be as disappointed as everyone else who sees an otherwise entertaining--if more than slightly unbelievable--procedural careening off the rails with a ridiculous climax that seems more fitting for a horror movie. The finale of SECRET IN THEIR EYES may seem ludicrous, but it's really just the entire film's Plot Convenience Playhouse nature crescendoing into a symphony of silliness, commencing right around the time three different stops on the way down puts all of the principal parties (Ray, Claire, Jess, and Marzin) on an elevator together. SECRET IN THEIR EYES abandons any illusions of subtext and commentary and despite the powerhouse headliners (a Roberts/Kidman teaming seems like it should've happened at least a decade ago, doesn't it?), it won't be getting any Oscar consideration, but if you're looking for a reasonably entertaining time-killer, it's worth a glance when it hits Redbox and Netflix in about three months.

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