Film Review: Secret in Their Eyes

Billy Ray’s crisply acted but jumbled remake of the 2009 Foreign-Language Oscar winner, about the obsessions and secrets triangulating a 13-year-old murder, never does justice to its source material.
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After making Shattered Glass, one of the modern era’s greatest journalism films, one would have hoped that writer-director Billy Ray would have absorbed the cardinal rule: Don’t bury the lead. Yet that is exactly what he keeps doing all throughout Secret in Their Eyes, his strained and surprisingly star-heavy remake of Juan José Campanella’s morally complicated potboiler that was also the 2010 Foreign-Language Oscar winner. Initially a procedural about a retired FBI agent who can’t let go of a cold case, Ray’s version sidles into a buried romance and a commentary on post-9/11 security-state excesses without ever quite getting a bead on any of the many elements it’s juggling.

Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor, tense like a wire) plays the retired fed. For 13 years he’s been in self-imposed private-sector exile, spending his nights trolling through the mug shots of every incarcerated white male in the American prison system. He’s doing this to find Marzin (Joe Cole), the man he is convinced raped and murdered Carolyn (Zoe Graham), the daughter of his old co-worker, Jess (Julia Roberts). The film opens with Ray, who thinks he’s found Marzin, hurling himself back into the lives of Jess and their friends and co-workers and reopening old wounds everywhere. Ray is an unwelcome sight for Jess. For Claire (Nicole Kidman), the new district attorney and onetime investigator on the same counter-terror task force that Ray and Jess were working on when Carolyn was killed, Ray is an unwelcome reminder of their smoldering near-love affair and the compromises they had to make.

Past and present are knitted together by a skein of flashbacks mostly signaled by hair cues: Ray’s silver streaks in the later scenes, the complete appearance and disappearance of the hair of fellow cop Reg (Michael Kelly). The relationships are knotty and difficult to tease out. The heartbroken Jess, with her obsidian-black rage and void of grief so ably channeled by a reinvigorated Roberts, would seem to be heart of the story. But the film keeps darting off to deal with other matters—especially Ray and Claire’s unconvincing romantic subterfuge—and failing to convincingly feed them back into the primary storyline. Scattered in between is a series of stock cop-film clichés, from the lucky break to the “Get out of way!” chase through a crowded public place to some forced locker-room badinage and the clenched-jaw demand to mete out justice in a way that the justice system never could.

Although not yet a cliché, one of the film’s least successfully integrated elements is the flashback’s post-9/11 backdrop, a wrongheaded attempt to mirror the role that Argentina’s Dirty War played in the original. These scenes are set in 2002, when the task force is monitoring a mosque in Los Angeles for radical activity. The investigation leads not just to the usual office-shouting squabbles over priorities (national security vs. street crime) but a clumsy commentary on the era.

Secret in Their Eyes deserves commendation for several things, from giving Roberts the first chance she’s had in years to truly act to delivering a truly surprising (at least for those who haven’t seen the original) and morally ambiguous twist that doesn’t spell out how the audience is supposed to feel. But that isn’t enough to make up for the generally pallid and relevance-strained cop melodrama that comprises the majority of this disappointing, unnecessary remake.

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