Movie Review: “Secret in Their Eyes”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Alfred Molina, Michael Kelly
Billy Ray

“Secret in Their Eyes” had its work cut out for it. The source material is a (fantastic) 2009 Argentinean film which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film the following year. It’s an intense, well-plotted crime thriller with an unrequited love story at its center. I described it at the time as “The Remains of the Day” set in a 1970s police station. Writer and director Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games,” “Captain Phillips”) knew that timeline wasn’t going to fly with a 2015 American adaptation, and while he loses a bit of the “Remains” aspect of the original story as a result, the time in which he places the flashback, post-9/11 Los Angeles, is a genius move. Paranoia is at an all-time high, and all of law enforcement was under tremendous pressure to find someone they can turn, and once they did, they protected that asset at all costs. You can see where that kind of environment would cause good cops to make bad decisions, and bad cops to make worse ones.

Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) works security for the New York Mets, but he spends his nights scanning databases for the one that got away 13 years ago, when he was working for the Counter Terrorist Unit in Los Angeles in 2002. He’s watching a local mosque, and when he receives word that a body is found in a nearby dumpster, he is shocked to discover that it is the daughter of his colleague Jessica (Julia Roberts). Ray’s only suspect in the case was a boy who regularly visited the mosque, but because of the boy’s value (he was a mole, and was about to give CTU an entire sleeper cell), he was considered untouchable.

Present-day Ray asks Claire (Nicole Kidman), for whom he’s been carrying a torch since the moment he met her and is now the city’s district attorney, to reopen the case so they can investigate a man recently out on parole, whom Ray firmly believes is Jess’ daughter’s killer. At this point, even Jessica is telling Ray and Claire to walk away, but Ray is motivated by this case for a reason that not even Jessica knows.

Roberts is immediately distracting with her lack of makeup – dear God, she’s channeling Charlize Theron in “Monster,” or Mariah Carey in “Precious” – but this is bar none the best work she’s done in years, contrived unsightliness be damned. (The scene where she sees her daughter for the first time is heartbreaking.) For anyone who knows the biggest hits in Roberts’ filmography, it’s hard not to look at this as Pretty Woman deliberately going “ugly.” For her sake, I hope that isn’t the case, but it certainly looks that way. Either way, it wasn’t necessary.

Billy Ray adapted the story quite nicely, keeping the important pieces in place, but changing their settings. The soccer stadium becomes a baseball stadium. He re-creates the elevator scene, and though the circumstances this time around neuter that one a bit, it’s still intense. And most importantly, he maintains the ending, though he gets a little chatty right before the Big Reveal, and therefore revealed too much too soon. (In fact, he extends the ending, which did not need to happen.) He makes up for this, though, with how he handles the 9/11 politics, because it makes perfect sense why every other cop would put their own interests ahead of those of Ray, Jess and Claire.

The movie’s biggest weakness is Kidman. She has one fantastic scene where she brilliantly goads the suspect into revealing his true nature, but otherwise delivers her lines with this almost Marilyn Monroe-esque seductive whisper that makes it difficult to take her careerist character seriously, and the Aussie accent slipping in now and then does not help matters. Bonus points, though, go to casting Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) as a douchey rival cop, and Alfred Molina as Ray’s singularly focused boss. Ejiofor is, well, Ejiofor. Dude delivers great work even when the material doesn’t call for it.

But this material calls for it. “Secret in Their Eyes” is that rare beast: a thriller with a heart. Even rarer, it is a well-made adaptation of a foreign film, somewhere in between recent attempts like “Let the Right One In”/”Let Me In” and the two “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movies. You should start with the original, of course, but as Hollywood remakes go, this one is impressive.