When I saw the remake of Poltergeist earlier this year, I wondered whether seeing the original helps or hurts enjoyment of the remake. I theorized that maybe a bad remake (for which that definitely qualifies) might benefit from the viewer knowing the original, because at least then you know the justification for inexplicably bad choices and can follow along.
However, having not seen the Argentinean Oscar-winning El secreto de sus ojos, I decided to take in its American incarnation fresh and see how it played to an outsider. After all, the logic behind English-language remakes of successful foreign films is that American audiences in large part won’t go see a movie in another language. Hence, if the story is worth telling to the folks in Omaha, it needs to be shot again with American stars in the language of Shakespeare-as-filtered-through-Gary-Cooper. In that respect, the ideal audience for this film is someone who hasn’t seen the original. Since I already hadn’t, I figured I wouldn’t put myself out.
Unfortunately, I turned out to be right. The Secret in Their Eyes is inexplicably bad, and, unlike Poltergeist, I have no idea why. Maybe in the original film I could find some justification for why all these top notch actors were delivering such rote dialog, or why the heavily contrived procedural couldn’t even contrive a way to be diverting and fun. Maybe the fusillade of pointless twists would at least have some anchor in common sense. Maybe the script which breaks every rule in the book would at least reveal the ways in which breaking those rules might pay off.
There are scenes here where characters spend almost a minute just saying hello. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s like someone dumped out the whole bag of bad plot devices on the table and tried playing Scrabble with them. Someone has political immunity. A cop assigned to a case discovers the victim is her dead child! Two people who never once engaged in any kind of romantic activity spend 13 years yearning for each other. “9/11” is repeated here almost as much as the F-word in The Big Lebowski.
And again, all of this is forgivable provided the film is at least engaging. Unfortunately this movie largely consists of people in rooms talking. Most of the time they are talking about something that happened a long time ago, or something that is going to happen. I won’t repeat the term David Mamet uses for that kind of scene, but you can find it here and I promise it is apt.
I just want to know why. Why did this happen? Writer/director Billy Ray isn’t a hack by any means. He’s responsible for the effectively understated Breach, provocatively nuanced Captain Philips, and even has penned a few very watchable remakes and adaptations like State of Play and the first Hunger Games. As for the cast, it includes such award-worthy talent as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. Roberts’ performance is clearly the standout. Her depiction of a grieving mother here is some of the best work she’s ever done, and it’s too bad the film can’t find a way to make her story dramatically effective.
The plot revolves around Ray (Ejiofor) a former FBI agent turned counter-terrorism agent turned security guard. Ray quit in the wake of a frustrating case surrounding the brutal rape and murder of one of his coworkers’ daughters. He leaves behind an unsolved case and unrequited romance with Claire (Kidman), the officer-turned DA originally charged with the case. Kidman and Ejiofor are both great actors, but this romance is a thankless task. The script gives them few opportunities to establish the kind of chemistry that would linger for thirteen years between the film’s post-9/11 origins and its present-day conclusion. In fact, it’s not enough chemistry to last 100 minutes. Their romance mostly consists of other people talking about their romance. Please refer back to Mr. Mamet.
Whatever insights the film might have about the lax ethical standards during the war on terror, they’re subverted by a seeming misunderstanding of how that kind of story might be told effectively. The flashback structure undercuts any drama. We know how the events thirteen years ago panned out. The chase in the present has no stakes.
There are really only two scenes that sustain any kind of tension. One is an interrogation in which Claire and Ray try to coax a confession out of Marzin (Joe Cole), a man they know to be the killer. Marzin’s curt dismissal of his evil actions is admittedly chilling. Claire notices him staring at her breasts and riles him up by belittling him sexually. This is probably the best scene in the film in which Roberts isn’t on screen. The bad guy’s nihilism inspires his enemies to debase themselves to see that he’s brought to justice. For a moment I cared about everyone involved.
The other standout is a chase scene at Dodger stadium. My guess is that this is where most of the budget went, because the camera goes out of its way to show the entirety of the stadium more than is probably necessary. As far as chase scenes go, this one is pretty standard. However, when you’re in a desert you take water wherever you can get it.
The ratings for every incarnation of NCIS and CSI and their ilk show there’s a wide appeal in police procedurals. However, anyone with a TV can watch hundreds of hours of this sort of thing for free. Secret in Their Eyes has to justify a ten dollar ticket and two hour runtime. A budget that allows Alfred Molina to take a thankless role as a shady DA won’t cut it. So once again I have to recommend that everyone see the original. I mean I haven’t seen it, but I doubt it could be worse.
Photos Courtesy of: IM Global