'Secret in Their Eyes': Film Review

A smartly conceived remake.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts topline Billy Ray’s adaptation of an Oscar-winning Argentine thriller.

With its undertow of melancholy and obsession, the 2009 Argentine drama El Secreto de Sus Ojos put a haunting spin on the policier, at the same time evoking a dark chapter in the country’s history. Juan Jose Campanella’s compelling, if overpraised, Oscar winner receives a smart Hollywood update from writer-director Billy Ray, who strips away the earlier film’s literary romanticism to fashion a harder-edged thriller.

Like the original, Secret in Their Eyes occupies the fraught territory between crime and punishment, political exigencies and justice. It can be both as gripping and as lacking in nuance as its predecessor, and though it often feels more like a highly polished TV procedural than a transporting cinematic experience, it’s a solid genre outing with unsettling topical resonance. The starry cast and provocative twists should give the movie theatrical staying power. As the second release from STX Entertainment, after The Gift, it’s a sound example of the medium-budget productions led by name actors that are the fledgling studio’s mandate — and, if nothing else, a refreshing departure from the year-end deluge of self-conscious “prestige” pictures.

Ray (Shattered Glass, Captain Phillips) makes a couple of crucial alterations to the source material that are likely to deepen its impact for U.S. viewers — or at least push complicating emotional buttons. The young woman whose murder sets the story in motion isn’t a random victim but the daughter of DA investigator Jess Cobb (an aggressively deglammed Julia Roberts, delivering her strongest performance in years). Jess is part of the law-enforcement triangle at the core of the movie — a trio defined by career rather than love, although romantic longing plays into it too.

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On the earlier side of the story’s interwoven double time frame, FBI investigator Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), deputy district attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman) and Jess meet as young hotshots on an anti-terrorism task force in Los Angeles. It’s a mere four months since the attacks of 9/11, and anchoring his drama in this high-strung moment is filmmaker Ray’s shrewdest decision. Where Campanella evoked Argentina’s so-called Dirty War against leftists and its effect on day-to-day law enforcement, Ray effectively conjures an atmosphere of paranoia that will be familiar to many viewers. The certainty that Los Angeles would be the next target of terrorist violence was all but palpable in early 2002. Roberts’ Jess, the embodiment of accusatory grief, can only circle the investigation of her daughter’s murder. Because the body is found near a mosque that’s under surveillance, the case involves Kasten and Claire.

The attraction between them, impassioned working-class detective and icy Harvard beauty, is more manufactured by plot than fully felt, but that’s less of a problem than it might be; the characters’ unspoken romantic feelings aren’t pivotal here, as they are in the Argentine feature. More essential is the way Claire and Kasten are affected when their investigation proves to be in vain, despite overwhelming evidence against their suspect (Joe Cole, duly unsavory). Evidence isn’t enough because he’s a prized federal informant, protected by task force chief Morales (Alfred Molina), single-minded to the point of outright criminality, and his surly cohort (Michael Kelly). Morales, who has no time for lowly murder cases when he sees a sleeper cell within reach, is a character who, in some of the film’s most heavy-handed sequences, hits the nail too squarely on the head.

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But Ray and his designers build a subtler, more convincing picture through background detail: the installation of closed-circuit cameras on L.A. streets, the proliferation of flag pins on the lapels of government employees. From the opening moments in a late-night office to the chilling denouement in the suburbs, lived-in design elements enrich the characterizations, and the trauma of one time period bleeds into the other. The story’s second time period, 13 years later, finds the central trio all profoundly changed by the aborted investigation. Kasten is no longer with the FBI but never has forsaken the cold case, the movie gradually revealing the reasons for his extraordinary resolve. Claire, now the DA and frostier than ever, is reluctant to reopen the files when he presents new information, while the formerly feisty Jess has become a wraith with dulled eyes, uninterested in digging up the past. The cinematographer, Daniel Moder, may be Roberts’ husband, but he affords her no special-treatment lighting or lens work for her portrayal of a character who’s the antithesis of vanity.

As Ray and editor Jim Page shift the narrative back and forth between past and present, the actors deftly embody the toll of time, with key assists from the costume, hair and makeup teams. It’s the difference between youthful idealism and middle-age pragmatism, to the nth degree. For Ejiofor and Roberts’ characters, the passage of those 13 years can be read in the weight of gravity on their faces. In pitch-perfect contrast, the facial features of Kidman’s Claire, a rising star who’s circumspect and politic, have a gravity-defying, masklike containment. Even when exposing Claire’s deeper feelings, Kidman maintains a suitably cool affect. For his part, Ejiofor persuasively navigates his high-energy character’s balancing act between guilt and duty. But it’s Roberts’ Jess, with her unwieldy pain, who holds the center of this crime drama, the suspense churning around her as one character after another devises ways to cross lines and break rules.

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From City Hall to a chop shop on the fringes of downtown, the use of Los Angeles locations is especially astute, with the Santa Anita racetrack and Dodger Stadium providing terrific color and texture in two set-piece sequences. Tracking a needle-in-the-haystack search, Moder’s camera swoops into the latter venue from overhead, the suggestion of destiny soon giving way to a breathless chase in which the men with badges (Ejiofor and Dean Norris) are anything but superhuman. Nobody here is, of course. In obsessive pursuit they stumble, just as surely as they find a reason to get up.

Production companies: STX Entertainment, IM Global, Route One Films, Gran Via Productions, Ingenious Media
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Alfred Molina, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Lyndon Smith, Ross Partridge
Director-screenwriter: Billy Ray
Based on the film El Secreto de Sus Ojos written by Juan Jose Campanella, Eduardo Sacheri
Producers: Mark Johnson, Matt Jackson
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Deborah Zipser, Russell Levine, Lee Jae Woo, Robert Simonds, Matt Berenson, Jeremiah Samuels, Juan Jose Campanella
Director of photography: Daniel Moder
Production designer: Nelson Coates
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Jim Page
Composer: Emilio Kauderer
Casting: Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas

Rated PG-13, 111 minutes