Secret in their Eyes: Film Review

We’re in that strange, two-weeks-before-Christmas period in the annual movie season, when Hollywood releases the pretty-good movies that are Oscar longshots in some category, right before the last-week-of-the-year period when the real Oscar contenders all get released. Christmas shopping all done, health issues on the way to being resolved; time for a pretty-good-movie binge.

Today’s selection was Secret in their Eyes, a murder mystery thriller-type thing, with an unengaging title, some good acting, an intriguing dilemma, and slow-building suspense. It cuts back and forth between events thirteen years apart; a murder in 2002, and the resolution of that murder in 2015.

Claire (Julia Roberts), Ray (Chiwetel Ejiorfor), and Jess (Nicole Kidman) are law enforcement types brought together, post 9/11, by the exigencies of the war on terror. They’re on a task force in LA, Claire borrowed from the LAPD, Ray from the FBI, and Jess from a prosecutor’s office. And Claire and Ray become good friends. Ray has this smouldering crush on Jess, which amuses Claire to no end. They get a call about a homicide in the parking lot outside a mosque they’re watching; their jurisdiction, due to possible terrorist implications. Only Ray, first on the scene, is horrified to discover that the victim is Clair’s teenaged daughter, Carolyn. And Claire, when she sees the body, falls completely apart.

Meanwhile, in the 2015 storyline, Ray (now a private detective) has never been able to let the case go. They had a suspect, Marzin (Joe Cole), back in the day, who walked. Assuming that Marzin may have gotten arrested for something else, Ray has spent thirteen years looking over photo arrays of incarcerated white guys of the right age. Now, he thinks he’s found Marzin. He wants Jess (now LA DA) to re-open the case, allow it to be re-investigated. She’s reluctant, as is Claire. But she finally agrees, and Ray and another of their cop friends from before, Bump (Dean Norris) begin surveillance.

The film keeps cutting back and forth between the two time periods, and the structure is effective. And as we see the contours of the case, two things become clear. Thirteen years ago, they had very good reason to think Marzin committed the murder. And they had no way to prove it; no forensic evidence, no eyewitness, only a forced confession which will not hold up in court, and evidence illegally collected from Marzin’s house, inadmissible. Plus, this complicating factor; Marzin was a snitch. An informant, part of a terrorist cell, willing to rat out his co-conspirators. And the head of their counter-terrorist unit, Morales (Alfred Molina), is understandably reluctant to pursue an iffy murder indictment of a good intel source.

So. They’re good cops. They are highly, highly motivated to solve this murder, and make an arrest. A colleague’s daughter was the murder victim. They know who did it, and where he lives. And they can’t arrest him. Their only real options are, um, extra-legal. And Claire, the victim’s Mom, doesn’t see just shooting the bad guy as providing any genuine justice.

That’s the dilemma at the heart of the movie, and it’s a solid one, a dramatic and powerful conflict to build a movie around. And the acting is all excellent. Ejiofor is such a wonderful actor, so emotionally connected, so open. I really enjoyed his performance; found the movie worth watching just to see him work. But the real star of the picture is Julia Roberts. In the 2002 scenes, Claire is a wreck, a woman completely crippled by emotional devastation. By the 2015 scenes, she’s figured out how to cope; she’s able to function. But there’s not much there. She’s wan, drawn-out, drained of life. She’s walking dead. It’s a superb performance, relentlessly bleak. I think that’s why the movie got a December release; the studio is hoping for an Oscar nomination for Roberts. It would certainly be deserved.

Nicole Kidman–who, for some reason, is marketed as the movie’s star– is fine enough, I suppose. She has one scene, an interrogation scene with Marzin, where we see her use her beauty, an aggressive sexuality, entirely tactically. And she gets their confession, but it’s so brutal that Marzin attacks her, and Ray beats him up so badly that the confession looks coerced. A complicated and powerful scene. My biggest problem with Kidman’s performance is not her acting, which is fine. I just found myself wondering what her character was doing in the movie. We’re supposed to believe that Ray is still in love with her, that he’s been working this impossible case for thirteen years just so he can impress her; that his investigation is nothing but an extended romantic gesture. I just didn’t buy it. My guess is that the movie got funded and made largely because it had Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman in it. I guess I’m glad she’s in the movie. But cutting her character entirely, and expanding Alfred Molina’s role would have made for a stronger movie, I think.

The last ten minutes of the movie featured two big plot twists, both fairly predictable and neither particularly convincing. But the acting held my attention, as did the movie’s central premise. What exactly do you do if you’re a cop, and you know who-dun-it, and he’s completely evil, but you can’t prove a thing? It’s a neat conundrum, and it made for a slow-paced but relentlessly suspenseful movie, beautifully acted, if the plot didn’t always work.

Best of all, all the trailers before the movie were for terrific movies that I want to see even more than this one. This is a weird movie season, but it’s not without its pleasures.

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