Avert Your Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes
(USA, 110 min.)
Written and directed by Billy Ray
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina
Courtesy eOne Films

Avert your eyes, Hollywood is at it again. Argentina’s Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes gets a ho-hum Hollywood remake in this by-the-numbers potboiler from writer/director Billy Ray (who wrote Captain Phillips). The original Secret in Their Eyes, despite being an Oscar winner, has ample room for improvement, so one feels a genuine disappointment that this remake fails to take the material to its full potential. The remake doesn’t even have a doozy of a long take to inspire one to leave the theatre raving, unlike hoe the original saved itself with five minutes of breathtaking filmmaking.

 This Secret in Their Eyes forgoes the signature long take of the original film, which begins as an aerial shot and then falls down into a crowded soccer stadium and holds with the police officers as the pursue their suspect through the crowds and around the halls. Instead, the remake pulls a cop-out by offering beginning the sequence at the sports stadium with the same aerial view as Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his partner Bumpy (Dean Norris) look for a suspect at a baseball game as the camera flies in, down through the field, and into the stands. Then it immediately cuts to a close-up. The long take is teased and denied.

The absence of the signature shot isn’t a major loss, but it simply shows how much this take on Secret in Their Eyes mails it in and struggles to justify its existence. Why bother with a remake if it just reminds the audience that a good-but-not-great original is the better option? There is no risk and no reward.

The story of the remake follows the same back and forth pattern of the original film as Ray revisits a cold case in which the daughter of his partner, Jess (Julia Roberts), was murdered and her killer never saw justice. Ray works with the district attorney, Claire (Nicole Kidman), who whom he’s had the hots since meeting her thirteen years earlier, just around the time that Jess’s daughter died and they collectively landed the worst case of their lives. The film sets the cold case in post-9/11 LA and puts Ray and Jess on a counterterrorism task force, and the setting actually hinders much of the film’s credibility as Ray’s commitment to the case jumps across departments and bureaus, and generates conflicts of interest and implausible oversights galore. The remake, to its credit, has more coherence than the original film does as it cuts back and forth between past and present. (Some different haircuts, including a comb-over on the usually-bald Norris, help to signal the time change.) The remake is more coherent, but it doesn’t have any fire.

Ray plays the drama as conventionally and even-handed as possible, so Secret in Their Eyes rarely musters a jolt, or shiver of tension. As a thriller, it doesn’t thrill, and there isn’t much punch or catharsis as the crosscut narrative twists the pieces of the story until the fall together. Even the chemistry between Ejiofor and Kidman is surprisingly cool. (The drab lighting doesn’t do much for mood or atmosphere, either.) The telenovela vibe between Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil in the original film leaves something to be desired, but the flatness of direction keeps the romance stuffy and bureaucratic in the remake. The remake misses the tight close-ups and double-tells of the actors’ eyes that bring the true emotions of the film to life.

The one notable improvement is the choice to make the victim’s relative a cop on the case and to cast Julia Roberts as said grieving mother. Roberts is very strong in a dowdy and restless performance that rings of grief, anger, and pain. The brooding fury of her work in August: Osage County continues in this dark and simmering performance. Secret in Their Eyes comes to life when Roberts is on screen as Jess’s bitter hunger rages through the signs of fatigue and strain that weigh her down. Her eyes, and the creases and black circles that surround them, are the film’s weapon.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Secret in Their Eyes is now playing in wide release.