On paper, Secret In Their Eyes is straight out of a pulpy detective novel. There's a loose-cannon investigator who's way too close to a murder case. He's got the hots for a chilly dame, but she's already got a rich patsy on the hook. He's fighting a corrupt system and working outside the law. All that's missing is a grumbled voiceover where he makes puns about bourbon and his love interest's gams. But the execution matters more than the story's roots: onscreen, Secret plays out like a glossy prestige picture, treating these old tropes with lofty gravity.
To be fair, the story was literary from its conception: Breach and Shattered Glass director Billy Ray adapted it from Juan Jose Campanella's Argentinian film El Secreto De Sus Ojos, which won 2009's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. And Campanella adapted it from Eduardo Sacheri's debut novel La Pregunta De Sus Ojos, which backgrounds its murder case with the turmoil of Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s. Ray follows the original film's grave tone, but replaces the Dirty War massacres with post-9/11 paranoia. The stars carry their parts like the weightiest of Oscar bait, packing every line with barely submerged emotion. It's a noir mystery presented as a drawing-room drama, decorous to a fault, and at times almost painfully restrained. Multiple people take punches to the face, but Secret doesn't land many punches itself.
Secret In Their Eyes is focused entirely on the wrong character
The film's primary hook is its twinned timelines. In 2002, when high school student Carolyn (Zoe Graham) is raped, murdered, and left in a mosque dumpster, protagonist Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an FBI investigator newly embedded in the Los Angeles district attorney's office, where his team is obsessing over a possible sleeper cell at the mosque. In 2015, Ray is based in New York, working security for the Mets, and returns to LA for the first time in 13 years, trying to persuade his old office to reopen that 2002 case. The two timelines alternate, unfolding two mysteries at once: who killed Carolyn in 2002, and what happened with the case that cost Ray his job and sent him to the other side of the country?
Another wrinkle: Carolyn was the daughter of Ray's co-worker Jess (Julia Roberts), and in both timelines, Jess haunts their office, looking wan, shrunken, and just this side of collapse. Much of the real body of Secret In Their Eyes revolves around why Ray feels such a strong personal investment in Carolyn's case, to the point where he's willing to break the law, and even potentially murder a suspect. Initially, it seems like he's invested for Jess' sake. Later, his own, even more personal reasons emerge. Secret In Their Eyes takes a leisurely journey toward the answers, complicating all the backstory with personal connections that add emotion, but not narrative heft.
In particular, Ray in 2002 quickly falls for the DA's new superstar second-in-command, Claire (Nicole Kidman), who spends far more time here playing obscure object of desire than a flesh-and-blood person. She's already engaged to a hedge-fund manager, and as her new boss, DA Martin Morales (Alfred Molina), growls to Ray, "Harvard Law doesn't date community college. Stop hitting on my new hire, you're embarrassing yourself." But that doesn't stop Claire from gazing meaningfully into Ray's eyes whenever they're in the same space, in either timeline. Why we're supposed to care about the meaning in that gaze is never quite laid out.
That's Secret's fundamental weakness: it's focused entirely on the wrong character, and the wrong personal drama. Jess is much closer to the case — and she's at the center of the marketing, which misleadingly takes advantage of Roberts' star power by making this look like her story. But Secret, it turns out, is largely about Ray's angst and his personal quest. His connection to Carolyn is tenuous, but he's inflated that link into a life-defining guilt. He's made this tragedy his, to the point where he keeps defining the situation for Jess, even as she vocally resists his efforts. Ultimately, this becomes another story about how a teenage girl's rape and murder emotionally affects a man.
There's a meaningful payoff to that construction, but it's a long time coming. And until we get there, the story focuses heavily on Ray's unrequited love for Claire — an inert, unvaried love that plays out through hitch-filled, awkward conversations packed with subtext. There's some meaningful action of the story, as Ray and his partner Bumpy (Dean Norris, essentially still playing the much-missed Hank from Breaking Bad) chase a suspect, or clash with smarmy, ambitious co-worker Reg Siefert (Homeland's Michael Kelly). But too often, the story movement is sidelined in favor of Remains Of The Day-style longing from afar.
The love story, the crime story, and the political story never cohere
Secret does get a long way on its cast's sheer movie-star charisma. Ejiofor has done beautiful work with this sort of role: the longsuffering, well-intentioned man who's learned to contain his personal desires, but not to prevent them from gnawing on his insides and hollowing him out. He's a beautiful onscreen sufferer in films from Dirty Pretty Things to Redbelt to 12 Years A Slave, and he's no less compelling here. Kidman is also familiar as the bloodless and brittle woman who can't act on her passions, but can't entirely contain them, either. And Julia Roberts has emerged from America's sweetheart roles (with all the mixed love and contempt those roles normally draw) to a series of stunning roles like this one, where she's alternately distant and ferocious. By the end, she does manage to reclaim the film emotionally — but by the time the movie reaches its destination, it's spent much too long lingering meaningfully on the wrong road.
With Sacheri's original novel and the Argentinian adaptation (which relegated the murder victim's husband in the background, rather than her mother), much of the story's point comes from the political backdrop. Sacheri used his protagonist's obsessions to explore how atrocity creates numb apathy and a sense of helplessness, and how small justice can't take root in an environment that's abandoned larger justice. Secret touches on the same ideas by exploring how the shadow of 9/11 poisons Los Angeles' law enforcement teams, as Siefert and Morales prioritize chasing shadow terrorists over dealing with a real horror. There's a touch of L.A. Confidential (and Chinatown before it) in the sense of Los Angeles as a pitiless, politics-driven town where ambition and personal agendas trump any sense of empathy or ethics.
But the love story, the crime story, and the political story never cohere. Secret has two timelines, at least three major secrets, and endless tension over who's willing to admit to the compromises they've made in giving up the things they once wanted. But it isn't entirely successful at putting together a single puzzle out of all these pieces. The cheap dimestore-novel version of this story at least would have stuck with a single direction.