'The Secrets We Keep': Film Review

The Secrets We Keep
Courtesy of Patti Perret/Bleecker Street Release

Noomi Rapace stars as Maja in Yuval Adler’s 'The Secrets We Keep.'

A thoughtful but only erratically effective B movie.
9/16/2020

In a thriller that also stars Chris Messina and Amy Seimetz, Noomi Rapace and Joel Kinnaman topline as Europeans whose paths cross fatefully in post-World War II America.

A man's misogynistic crime, a woman's revenge — it's territory that Noomi Rapace occupied memorably as the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In a very different mood and setting, The Secrets We Keep finds her there again, and again the results teeter between the provocative and the implausible. A dramatic thriller tackling serious themes — the aftermath of war, the cost of retribution and the possibility of redemption — the movie can't always get out of its own way, as reliably effective as Rapace is.

She plays Maja, a transplanted Romanian who, in the years since World War II has built a new life with her American husband, Lewis (Chris Messina), keeping her darkest memories to herself. Those memories threaten to upend that life when, on the serene streets of her small town, she recognizes a former German soldier and sets in motion a series of drastic events to confront the trauma she believes he inflicted on her. An examination of violence, the film is also an exploration of the marital pact and emotional intimacy — or the lack thereof. Its final moments embody that theme so eloquently that it's a shame more of what precedes them don't pack the same punch. As directed by Yuval Adler (Bethlehem, The Operative), the screenplay by Ryan Covington and Adler struggles at crucial moments to achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.

The postwar milieu created by Adler, production designer Nate Jones and cinematographer Kolja Brandt sets the stage for the calamity to come with its apt fusion of forward-looking renewal and vestiges of calamity. (The pitch-perfect exteriors were shot in Hammond, Louisiana, near New Orleans.) In their unnamed town, Maja works with Lewis, a physician, in his medical clinic. That she's the more self-contained and hardened of the two will soon enough be crystal-clear, but the first telling sign arrives when she questions his spontaneous dinner invitation to a new patient, a man who lost his legs in combat, calling the friendly gesture an indulgent act of pity.

The year, apparently, is 1959 — North by Northwest is playing at the local theater (perhaps cheating the timing, in this early-summer story, by a few weeks). Hitchcock's feature leaps across the country as the wrong man is swept into a deadly intrigue against his will. Is it also a matter of misidentification when Maja imprisons Thomas (Joel Kinnaman) in her family's suburban basement?

Enjoying a lackadaisical picnic with her young son, Patrick (Jackson Vincent), Maja goes into high alert when a tall blond man walks by, and in short order she has followed him home to get a better look. Peeking into the tidy house he shares with his wife and two children, she sees his face clearly, and her reaction is visceral. She's shaken to the core. To the viewer, his accent — German, isn't it? — suggests plenty.

The material takes bold chances, beginning with Maja's lying in in wait for the man when he gets off his shift at the refinery and kidnapping him in broad daylight. She drives him to a remote location where she's already dug a grave, but, unable to bring herself to do the deed, she takes him home. Notwithstanding Rapace's credentials as a petite deliverer of retribution, you might find yourself pulled out of this extreme chain of events to wonder how she got him back in the trunk of her car.

Tied to a chair in the basement, the man insists that he's a Swiss citizen named Thomas, not the Karl of Maja's most painful memories. As she pursues her program of interrogation and torture, she also must fill in Lewis on her wartime experiences, far more harrowing than what she'd previously let on, beginning with her identity as a member of the persecuted Roma, known disparagingly as gypsies.

A devoted husband, Lewis becomes Maja's reluctant — but not all that reluctant — co-conspirator. Worried calls to a psychiatrist notwithstanding, he's on board, if only to protect his spouse and their comfortable family life. In what may be the movie's low point (or a marital spat for the ages), Lewis comes home from work to find that Maja has been busy pursuing truth in the basement. "We said we were going to do this together," he shouts. "You torture him when I'm not here?!"

As neighbors grow suspicious and Patrick flinches from his wild-eyed — and blood-spattered — mother, Lewis tries to quell his skepticism and sort out whether Thomas is indeed the rapist and murderer Maja claims he is. The dark doings downstairs increasingly become a test of the couple's bond. And not always subtly: When Maja confesses her ordeals to Lewis, they're standing on opposite sides of the wire mesh of their backyard chicken coop.

The material's observations about what's shared and what's withheld within a marriage find expression not just in Maja and Lewis' interactions, but also in a far more unsettling relationship. Seeking corroborating information, Maja befriends Thomas' wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz, quietly persuasive), or pretends to. The film is most alive in their exchanges, a recognition of women's limited options crackling beneath the strange surface: a woman seeking her missing husband having coffee with the woman who's holding him captive.

Rapace embodies Maja's obsessive intensity, and Kinnaman does what he can with the enigmatic role of Thomas, but the truth is that Maja's quarry is almost a nonentity — which is perhaps the point, but one that undermines the narrative's intended tension. Interrupting the action are Maya's flashbacks to a chaotic night of marauding soldiers and terrified young women. These scenes, shot in thick monochromic shadow, grow longer, if only slightly more coherent, each time they occur. Heightening the present-day mystery might have served the story better. At its weakest it's distractingly off-key; at its strongest it's steeped in an almost ghostly atmosphere of trauma, peering into what we what we choose to look away from or bury in silence — and how long that can endure.

Distributor: Bleecker Street
Production companies: AGC Studios, di Bonaventura Pictures, Echo Lake Entertainment, Fibonaci Films, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Kirkhaus Films Ltd., Ingenious Media
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Vincent
Director: Yuval Adler
Screenwriters: Ryan Covington, Yuval Adler
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Erik Howsam, Adam Riback, Greg Shapiro, Stuart Ford
Executive producers: Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Ben Ross, Noomi Rapace, Miguel Palos Jr., Marco Henry, Andrea Scarso, Jamie Jessop
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Nate Jones
Costume designer: Christina Flannery
Editor: Richard Mettler
Music: John Paesano

98 minutes