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Secret in Their Eyes is Surprisingly Unforgettable

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2015 19 Nov
  • COMMENTS
<i>Secret in Their Eyes</i> is Surprisingly Unforgettable

DVD Release Date: February 23, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: November 20, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references)
Genre: Drama
Run Time:  111 min.
Director: Billy Ray
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Zoe Graham, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly

Secret in Their Eyes has no noticeable special effects and isn't the middle chapter—or any chapter—of an ongoing franchise. It won't spawn any sequels and it isn't based on a beloved book or TV show. In today's movie environment, that means the film already has strikes against it, especially when it’s opening against the final segment of the Hunger Games, while the latest James Bond movie is only a few weeks into its theatrical run.  

That doesn't mean Secret in Their Eyes is completely unknown. While the story will be unfamiliar to most viewers, it is an American remake of a 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner from Argentina. The original film had enough potential to attract no less than Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman to the roles of FBI investigators and a district attorney supervisor who try to solve a murder case that affected them deeply more than a decade earlier.

The film follows two timelines: 2015 and 2002. In the present day, Ray (Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), who's moved on from the FBI, visits former co-worker Claire (Kidman, Paddington), who's now the district attorney. He's there to bring closure to a case that involves his former fellow agent Jess (Roberts, Larry Crowne), whose daughter was found murdered not long after 9/11. The killer was never caught, but Ray claims he has ID'd the perpetrator.

The story alternates between the discovery of the murder in 2002 and Ray's pursuit of his suspect in 2015. But the film also ambles, sometimes threatening to slow down to the point of inertia. Just when the account threatens to lose interest, director and screenwriter Billy Ray (Breach) inserts a shot of narrative adrenaline that the slow-building tale needs to get us to its surprising finish.

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While certain plot contrivances—an elevator ride that's briefly shared by a suspected murderer and the mother of the victim, and a tendency to spell out points about vengeance and justice—are distracting, the film earns enough credibility ahead of those moments to keep viewers from disconnecting from an otherwise moody, effective thriller. Ray's romantic pursuit of Claire is more muted than it should have been, but not because Ejiofor doesn't bring his A-game. He's the strongest of the film's three leads, even more memorable than Roberts, who, in the 2015 timeline, looks shattered by the harsh hand dealt her 13 years earlier.

Billy Ray, with three directing credits dating back to 2003, is a filmmaker who's not in a hurry. He's also not without flourish, able to sustain actor-driven films sans show-off visuals, confident that his audience will follow along. In addition, Emilio Kauderer's score gives the film a consistent tone of seriousness even when the story tips into implausibility.

It always recovers, and then ends in a way which took this critic completely by surprise. Secret in Their Eyes raises questions about the personal costs of dealing with traumatic events, and while some of the same ground has been trod in other recent films (naming them could spoil some of this movie's surprises), the story's moral issues are ones worth revisiting every few years—especially the idea that tragedy is not simply one horrendous act from the distant past, but something that can be an ongoing, consuming event. How might these characters have reacted to personal tragedy in ways that didn't, at least in Ray's case, allow the loss to eat away at them for more than a decade?

Faith isn't mentioned in Secret in Their Eyes—the fear of another terrorist attack and surveillance of a mosque is the story's only religious angle—but the Bible is filled with those who long for justice, as well as cautions against taking such matters into our own hands ("Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil" Ecclesiastes 8:11).

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Secret in Their Eyes is a story of justice delayed and the toll that takes on its characters. Although it hits a few bumps along the way, the film has a powerful conclusion not only in terms of its resolution, but in the way its strongest performances peak in those final moments. Those moments have a haunting quality that's certain to affect one's assessment of the film much more than any of its drawbacks. It certainly has in my case. I won’t soon forget Secret in Their Eyes.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “don’t be a d-ck”; “s-ithead”: “what the hell”; taunts about male genitalia; “bi-ch” 
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Nothing beyond a Schlitz poster
  • Sex/Nudity: Flashbacks show a woman struggling during a sexual assault; cleavage; a suspect stares at Claire’s unbuttoned blouse
  • Violence/Crime: Flashbacks to a woman struggling against a man assaulting her; the woman’s body is discovered face down, with her dress slightly hitched up; a dog is kicked or tossed from off screen and seen flying through the frame, in a scene designed for laughs; Ray is hit in the midsection during pursuit of a suspect; Ray says his team should kill a suspect; Ray punches a suspect; Ray is punched, kicked and hit with brass knuckles; people are struck with the butt of a gun; a man is shot, and blood pools beneath him; 
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: Ray is attracted to Claire, but doesn’t pursue her because she’s engaged; Ray pushes weights down on the neck of a man doing bench presses; Claire’s husband confronts her about her attraction to Ray; the post-9/11 setting includes discussion of a mosque and the possibility of a mosque attendee being the perpetrator of the crime

Publication date: November 19, 2015

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