And that secret is it’s a bad movie: “Secret in Their Eyes”

February 25, 2016


Secret in Their Eyes wants to be a prestige Oscar-bait picture really badly. I mean, really, really badly. Like Blofeld-wants-to-kill-James-Bond bad. I mean, look at everything stuffed into it: The War on Terror, the death of a child, a mystery, cops, and about as many of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters as you’re legally allowed to have in a film before you have to register as a chapter of the Church of Scientology. This is a movie that would gladly throw anyone into a piranha tank if it meant that statuette. I’m pretty sure if was possible (and more importantly, feasible) this movie would blow every Academy member. It just wants to be taken seriously so bad….Bwhahahaha! Too bad it’s just really overcooked and ridiculous.

Secret in Their Eyes tells a bifurcated story, jumping between present day and a confused, anxious period in 2002. Linking the time periods is a terrible crime, the murder of the teenaged daughter of an LAPD detective (Julia Roberts), who happened to be serving on an LA-based Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Said JTTF was a veritable Melrose Place of romantic intrigue and professional rivalries. The driving force of the film is FBI agent Ray Carsten (Chiwetal Ejiofor), who totally has the hots for Assistant DA Claire Daniels (Nicole Kidman), who is, unfortunately, engaged to a hedge fund manager or something like that. Well, Ray feels some responsibility for the girl’s death and goes full-throttle after the killer, despite being in LA to hunt terrorists.

HI, I'm also in this movie. Yep, playing another shady character.

HI, I’m also in this movie. Yep, playing another shady character.

Complicating matters is the fact that the likeliest suspect is a DOJ informant planted in the radical mosque the JTTF is surveilling. Well, this plays out exactly like you’d expect…well, no actually it doesn’t. See, any normal-thinking person would expect Ray to use his skill and experience as an expert investigator to build a case against the bad guy. Yeah, that’s not what happens. Instead, Ray goes bugnuts crazy, breaking and entering, illegally detaining him, and finally beating the shit out of him in a conference room. Ray is less an FBI agent than a rogue cop from an ‘80s action movie. He’s one Lieutenant screaming that he’s a loose-cannon away from being in a Cannon flick.

"What? This is how we conduct interrogations in New York."

“What? This is how we conduct interrogations in New York.”

Unsurprisingly, the case gets kicked—though, the movie makes clear it’s because of the kid’s use in the War on Terror, and not Ray’s various violations of his Constitutional rights—which brings us to present day, when Ray, now retired from the FBI, has returned with fresh evidence to try and make his case, and maybe win over Claire. And he…promptly pulls the same shit.

"Neener, neener! I killed your daughter!"

“Neener, neener! I killed your daughter!”

Look, this is basically a pulp novel of a movie straining for a prestigious pedigree. The problem is it’s just really stupid. The film is based on the Argentinian book and film The Secret in Their Eyes (but, hey, we didn’t kick the Brits out of this joint to use wussy articles in our movie titles), which also dealt with a murder that is overshadowed by the aftermath of that country’s dirty wars. Those treatments posited that in the shadow of such state-sponsored injustice, even a basic human injustice like murder loses its urgency.


“Yeah, I know she was your daughter, but this movie is mostly about me, so…”

The American version tries for the same theme by using the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as the overshadowing event. This could, in theory, work, except the movie isn’t much interested in reckoning with the various compromises we made to our civil liberties. Instead, Ray just breaks every rule in the book to nail the creep, while lost of people tell him to stop breaking those rules. Even without the state of panic law enforcement existed in during this period, Ray’s case would have been tossed out.

Look at that chemistry. So hot. Wow.

Look at that chemistry. So hot. Wow.

Had the movie showed Ray using the shield of anti-terrorism to steamroll the kid’s civil rights and make his case, it would have made some thematic sense. Sure, the movie posits that the kid is being protected because of his importance as an informant, but when you have a cop as unhinged as Ray, well, you’re kind of rooting for the obstructionists…which I’m pretty sure the opposite point the movie is trying to make.

He's just beating confessions out of random people now.

He’s just beating confessions out of random people now.

It doesn’t help that the movie whiffs on just about every other point. Julia Roberts vanishes for big chunks of the movie while Ray hunts the killer, despite the victim being her freaking daughter! It’s hard to tamp down the bitterness at how thoroughly she’s marginalized so that a male character with no connection to her daughter can make the movie go.

Additionally, the unrequited love between Claire and Ray has to be presented with no subtlety or finesse—director Billy Ray practically screams from off-camera “The really, really love each other!” This is understandable given that Ejiorfor and Kidman—both great actors—unfortunately have about as much chemistry as a tortoise and a lawn chair.

Oh yeah. They just sizzle.

Oh yeah. They just sizzle.

On top of that we get rock-stupid things like the killer’s obsessions with cops, comics, and LA baseball—things that have nothing to do with one another, but only exist for the investigation to make some sense. We also get scenes like the kid leaping three stories onto concrete and then running like a rabbit, which strain credibility much farther than a movie that wants to be this serious can handle.

"Gonna have to move the spare tire..."

“Gonna have to move the spare tire…”

Secret in Their Eyes is a grim, dour, joyless slog. It’s simultaneously unbearably pretentious and dumber than a box of hammers. Director Billy Ray has made two great movies—Breach and Shattered Glass—but they were smaller in scope, based on true events, and revolved around a common theme of teasing truth from an unrepentant liar. Let’s hope this movie is just a misstep in his career and not graphic example of his limitations.


  1. Funny review! Just curious, have you seen the original Argentinean flick? Is it any better? Love your reference to “O Brother Where Art Thou” near the end. Movies that are dumber than a box of hammers can be fun, but not if they take themselves as seriously as this one apparently did. It reminds me of the recent Atom Egoyan / Ryan Reynolds movie “The Captive”- ridiculous, but also totally earnest and self-serious.

    • I haven’t seen the original film, though I’ve heard good things about it. And, ugh, The Captive…what a completely ludicrous film that thinks it’s Room.

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