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“Secret In Their Eyes” Film Review by Van Roberts

“Pretty Woman” superstar Julia Roberts shatters her glamorous image in the grim but surprising police procedural thriller “Secret in Their Eyes” (*** OUT OF ****), co-starring Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman, Oscar nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Emmy-nominated actor Alfred Molina.  This occasionally gripping but often conventional film is a remake of the superb 2009 Argentinean opus “The Secret in Their Eyes.”  Scripted originally with a man in mind, Roberts’ steps into the rewritten supporting role as a grieving single-mom who happens to be a veteran detective determined not only to take the law into her own hands but also exact vengeance on the suspected murderer of her daughter.  Furthermore, the man in the Argentinean movie was not a pistol-packing policeman, but a statistics-minded bank clerk!  Reportedly, “Shattered Glass” writer & director Billy Ray rewrote the role specifically for Julia Roberts.  Incidentally, Ray is best known for scripting movies such as “Flightplan,” “Captain Phillips,” and “The Hunger Games.”  Of course, it remains to be seen whether Julia Roberts’ loyal fans will accept the “Erin Brockovich” actress as a plain-Jane, tomboy with a sadistic streak.  In contrast, murder mystery aficionados who thrive on grisly melodramas may have a tough time imagining Roberts as such a demented soul.  Mind you, entertaining as this formulaic American crime saga is, it isn’t as imaginative as its distinguished predecessor that took home the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010.  Appropriately enough, the director who helmed the inspired original film, Juan José Campanella, served as the executive director for “Secret in Their Eyes.”  Presumably, Campanella must have conferred his blessing on the Hollywood adaptation by supervising it as an executive director.

FBI agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “American Gangster”) has been reassigned to Los Angeles.  He has been dispatched to assist a special anti-terrorist task force in the aftermath of New York City’s 9/11 catastrophe.  Ray has grown chummy with two investigators, Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) and Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris of “Lethal Weapon 2”), but District Attorney Martin Morales (Alfred Molina of “Spider-Man 2”) and gimlet-eyed Detective Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly of “Man of Steel”) infuriate him. Morales has just recruited a new deputy D.A., Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman of “Australia”), who is an statuesque blonde.  Everybody, particularly Jess, soon realizes Ray is infatuated with Claire.  Claire remains as cool as a glacier as she moves around Ray.  Nevertheless, she is doesn’t entirely ignore him.  Meantime, Ray has been conducting surveillance on a mosque when a report reaches him about a Jane Doe corpse in a nearby dumpster.  Everybody assembles at the mosque where the police have set-up a crime scene.  Ray is the first detective to gaze into the dumpster.  Horror overwhelms him when he recognizes the corpse; the dead girl, Carolyn Cobb (Zoe Graham of “Boyhood”), is none other than Jess’s daughter.  Distraught beyond description, Jess climbs into the dumpster and cradles her dead daughter in her arms.

Eventually, Ray ferrets out an enigmatic suspect, Marzin (Joe Cole of “Offender”), on the basis of a company picnic photo.  The villain is shown staring at Carolyn in the picture.  Later, Ray discovers that Marzin had been hanging around the mosque. Inevitably, Ray clashes with an abrasive Morales about his conduct.  Ray is an defiant FBI agent who ignores boundaries when they interfere with his objectives.  Launching his own investigation, Ray refuses to share either evidence or leads with the detectives assigned to the case.  Ray provokes Morales’ wrath because the loose cannon FBI agent has been neglecting his prime directive. He is supposed to monitor potential terrorist threats to Los Angeles.  Morales threatens to notify the FBI about Ray’s insubordination and have him recalled.  Nothing Morales does, however, derails Ray’s obstinate search for Carolyn’s murderer.  At one point, Claire finds herself drawn into his investigation.  Together, they expose Marzin as the killer, but events beyond their control prevent them from prosecuting this dastard.

“Secret in Their Eyes” inherited its flashback-riddled narrative structure from the original.  The remake unfolds 13 years after Carolyn’s unsolved murder as Ray shows up Los Angeles to convince Claire—now the District Attorney— that she must reopen the case because he has new evidence about the identity of the suspect. Comparatively, in the original, the hero revisited his old stomping ground 25 years afterward because he is using Carolyn’s homicide as the subject for a novel.  The two films switch back and forth between past and present with nimble abandon.  This hopscotch technique could confuse audiences accustomed to straightforward chronological yarns. In this respect, the American version takes advantage of these incessant shifts in time to accentuate the suspense and the surprises.  Whereas the Argentinean cop was not personally acquainted with the murder victim, the FBI agent worked closely with the daughter’s mother as a colleague.

The American remake suffers primarily from the changes that Billy Ray has made with certain characters.  First, the incendiary FBI agent explodes like a powder keg and emerges as his own worst enemy.  The investigator in the original rarely lost his temper.  Second, the hero’s partner in the Spanish film mustered greater charisma than the hero’s crippled counterpart in the remake.  Third, the hero’s antagonist boss is neither as eloquent nor as profane as the hero’s superior in the original.  Fourth, the motive for the hero to return in the remake is more contrived than the hero’s reappearance in the first film. Fifth, a “Gone in 60 Seconds” stolen car chop-shop scene qualifies as hopelessly gratuitous with its standard-issue shootout.  Despite the flawed characters and the uneven scenes, the remake successfully duplicates more scenes from the original than it wrecks.  The best example occurs when Kidman and Ejiofor collaborate to dupe the villain into confessing his crime.  Unfortunately, Kidman and Ejiofor generate little chemistry as a couple supposedly attracted to each other. Altogether, “Secret in Their Eyes” doesn’t surpass its infinitely superior predecessor “The Secret in Their Eyes.” Nevertheless, Julia Roberts manages to broaden her repertoire.

  “Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts


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