Directed by: Billy Ray
Premise: A remake of the 2009 Argentinian film. A group of FBI investigators discover that the teenage daughter of one of their own has been murdered. Thirteen years later, someone who may be the chief suspect resurfaces.
What Works: Secret in Their Eyes is a movie about how grief and guilt gnaw at a person and that comes through in the central performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julia Roberts play investigators who were once partners but when the teenage daughter of Roberts’ character is found murdered, Ejiofor’s character goes out of his way to find the killer, ultimately derailing his career. Ejiofor has the splashier role and he’s quite good, especially in the scenes he shares with Nicole Kidman. At the time of the murder she is an up and coming prosecutor and the two of them hit it off but the trauma of the case and the twists in the investigation spoil their relationship. When they reunite years later the longing for each other is still there and Ejiofor and Kidman have a vibrant romantic chemistry. However, it’s Julia Roberts’ performance that is the most surprising. The actress is generally associated with romantic comedies and likable girl-next-door characters. In Secret in Their Eyes Roberts is cast as a tough, grieving mother. The impact of the daughter’s death swirls around Roberts like a fog. However, the movie rarely shows her crying or carrying on hysterically. Instead Roberts carries herself with a quiet, strained dignity and there is an extraordinary amount of pain evident in the subtleties of her performance. An atmosphere of grief permeates this film and Secret in Their Eyes has a visceral impact. It is also a story of moral complexity. Before the murder, Ejiofor and Roberts surveil a mosque in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack and it is later revealed that the suspected murderer is also a mosque informant. The paranoia of another terrorist attack steers the federal officials to ignore the rape and murder of a young woman for the sake of getting counterterrorist information. That leads to other characters violating codes of professional conduct to right the wrong. The moral and ethical corruption of the characters is very unsettling.
What Doesn’t: The story of Secret in Their Eyes is told in a nonlinear fashion. It’s unclear why the filmmakers made this choice. Nothing is revealed through this juxtaposition of past and present that wouldn’t be clearer or more impactful in a linear narrative and for the most part there are no logical cues for the transition between the past and the present. There’s just no reason why the story had to be told in this fashion and the movie is often worse for it. Instead of clarifying the links between the past and the present, the moviemakers often clutter the story and it is frequently difficult to tell where any given scene takes place on the timeline. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character has the central role in the movie; his choices drive the story but his motivations are left vague. We know that he had a passive relationship with the victim but the movie never establishes anything concrete enough to explain why he would be so consumed with grief as to obsess about the case the way that he does. Ejiofor’s character and several of his law enforcement coworkers make some unbelievably stupid decisions, such as breaking into the home of the chief suspect and stealing evidence which is then inadmissible in court. For the investigator to be this reckless, and do so with the full knowledge of their supervisors, beggars belief. The investigation, both past and present, suffers from other gaps in credibility. Characters draw conclusions that aren’t apparent from the evidence and the investigation hinges on questions of identity that should be moot in the age of immense government databases.
Bottom Line: Secret in Their Eyes has some extraordinary performances and there is a powerful story here of justice and corruption. But the filmmakers are overambitious and unnecessarily complicate the story.
Episode: #572 (December 6, 2015)