In remaking the 2009 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner La pregunta de sus ojos, writer/director Billy Ray attempts to generate many core audience emotions. The only one he successfully elicits is confusion.
This is a conflicted film all the way through, unsure of who its protagonist is or what conflicts it wants to presents. Although there are a few standout moments, Secret In Their Eyes is a muddled, wasteful mess.
Secret In Their Eyes focuses around former FBI counter-terrorism investigator Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has spent the past 13 years looking for Marzin (Joe Cole), the man who was once a suspect in the murder of Carolyn Cobb (Zoe Graham), daughter of Ray’s former partner Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts). Believing he has a lead, Ray urges his former supervisor and long-time crush Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman) to re-open the case. Since Ray is no longer an actual law enforcement officer, he enlists the help of an old friend named Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris, who could also be described as “Bumpy Willis”). Throughout the modern-day investigation, the film flashes back to 13 years earlier during Ray’s initial investigation to show his struggles with a power-hungry DA (Alfred Molina) and a snitch-protecting teammate (Michael Kelly).
While the two storylines hit all the checklist points necessary to make sense in relation to each other, the overall storyline becomes overblown to the point of being uncomfortable and nonsensical. The 2002 storyline has Ray immediately snap into “loose cannon on the edge” mode, which feels unearned; we’re just supposed to roll with it because we’ve already seen him desperate and defeated. But plot points and “evidence” seem to materialize in the most tenuous of places. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film was committed to showing Ray as unreliable and grasping at straws, but it never seems sure of his competency.
This is the big problem with Secret In Their Eyes: It doesn’t seem to know what to do with its own protagonist.
We know that Ray doesn’t know how to let things go, both professionally and romantically, but the movie is unwilling to commit to this ideal. A semi-interesting thread emerges comparing Ray’s unrequited flirting over Claire to the delusions Marzin has with Carolyn, but that is quickly dismissed in favor of a boring “loved and lost” plotline. Ray’s obsessions are both unwanted and unneeded, detracting from Jess, the mourning mother who should have been the main character.
There is, of course, a good reason why Jess gets relegated to the background, revealed in the film’s final moments. However, by that point the emotional impact has been stripped by a boring and meandering story anchored by a milquetoast romance. Tonally, there are too many leaps from buddy-cop comedy to social indictment for any consistent narrative to be set. It’s impossible to tell whether the film wants us to believe Ray’s leads are ignored because they’re weak and he’s deluded or if it wants us to think it’s because America was bad after 9/11. Secret In Their Eyes bats around like a kitten in a yarn shop, and that description is more adorable than the film deserves.
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