Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes was a gripping Argentinean crime drama bolstered by superb filmmaking and a melancholic love story told against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War. It was by no means a great movie but the stirring performances by Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil lent it a modicum of emotional heft—enough to allow it to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009. The American remake on the other hand, is a prime example of why American filmmakers, with a few notable exceptions, shouldn’t bother remaking international films. It’s a flat-out atrocity that squanders the talent of three terrific actors with lifeless direction, an incoherent screenplay and some hideous amateur-hour cinematography.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julia Roberts play Ray and Jess, Los Angeles-based FBI agents tasked with surveilling a local mosque whose members have been suspected of terrorist activity. They work with Claire, a newly-appointed District Attorney who Ray takes an immediate romantic interest in. When a body is found in a dumpster at the back of the mosque, Ray is shocked to learn that the dead women is Jess’ teenage daughter. Although they are able to apprehend the murderer/rapist rather quickly, government bureaucracy comes into play when they realize that the killer is the key informant in a counter-terrorism case that’s very important to their bosses (Alfred Molina).
Like the film it’s based on, Secret in Their Eyes attempts to weave romance, suspense, thrills and revenge into a narrative that takes place over two time periods. In this case, it’s post- 9/11 2002 and present day 2015. But instead of telling a linear story, writer-director Billy Ray darts back and forth between the time periods in an attempt to give the story a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, the switching between time periods is handled with the elegance of a dumpster crashing down a cliff. It’s devoid of sense, suspense or momentum. The result is a languid and flaccidly-paced romantic thriller that succeeds at neither being romantic nor thrilling. Not helping matters is the murky cinematography by Daniel Moder (i.e. Julia Roberts’ husband) that succeeds at only making the film duller. Not only do the images look ugly but his handling of the most celebrated scene of the original—the virtuoso single-take soccer stadium chase—is laughable.
Sometimes a strong performance can make all the difference (basically anything Liam Neeson has done in the last five years) but that’s not the case here. While Ejiofor and Roberts are watchable, neither are able to rise above their thinly-written roles. But Kidman, who has a tendency to elevate even garbage like The Paperboy, suffers the worst fate in a role that reduces her to a weak and silent observer. It’s a particularly egregious sin on part of the filmmakers considering that her character was one of the two central ones in the original film.
The supporting cast, which includes Molina, Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris and House of Cards‘ Michael Kelly are similarly wasted. Why cast these guys if you’re not going to give them anything substantial? Even the post-9/11 references that Ray incorporates into the screenplay in an attempt to give it a political subtext on the lines of the political backdrop of the Argentinean original are at best shoddy. By the time the film limps to its surprise ending, the only surprise here was that I was still awake. Spending any more time writing about Secret in Their Eyes would be a waste. This is an embarrassing failure and career low for every talent involved. Simply thinking about it puts me to sleep.
Running time: 111 minutes
Companies: STX Entertainment
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references)