Of all the emotions actors are called upon to deliver when the director calls “Action,” the first paroxysms of grief must be the hardest.
But Julia Roberts makes us feel that she has just this instant discovered that the body she and her fellow detectives are callously looking over in a dumpster is her daughter in “Secret in Their Eyes.”
Jess, her character, falls apart, plunges into that dumpster, tears off the crime-scene vinyl gloves and wails and rocks in unadulterated misery. There’s no movie star vanity, no sense that there’s a camera looking down on the worst moment in her character’s life. It is loss at its most immediate, so real it makes you want to turn away.
The movie this great and rare moment is in isn’t, on the whole, worthy of that scene. It’s an absurdly melodramatic and predictable Hollywood updating of an Oscar winning Argentinian film of 2009.
The conceit, preserved here, are clues lying in plain sight in a couple of photographs. A Federal agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor), on CT (counter-terrorism) duty in concert with the LAPD, sees a photo from the unit picnic, a creepy looking young guy (Joe Cole) ogling Jess’s daughter from across a picnic table. On that hint alone, he disobeys orders, ignores the jihadist mosque he’s supposed to be concentrating on and moves heaven and Earth to find the man who killed Jess’s daughter.
It’s not that he has the hots for her. There’s something deeper involved. Besides, it’s the new assistant DA (Nicole Kidman) he’s interested in, even though she’s engaged.
The initial investigation is covered in flashback, years later, after Ray has left the FBI. But he has never abandoned the case, doggedly poring over mugshot photos by the tens of thousands, spending 13 years trying to find this one guy.
“I’ve found him, Jess!”
Jess, an empty shell all these years later, barely registers this. Claire (Kidman), now DA, is unconvinced.
And then we see all that went wrong, way back when, when Ray was “not just crossing the line, but burying it,” trying to chase down the monster who killed his friend’s daughter. We see all the official efforts to keep this case from advancing, the competing agendas of his fellow detectives and the then-DA (Alfred Molina, terrific).
Writer-director Billy Ray moves this story from an Argentina trying to forget the awful crimes of officialdom of the recent past to post 9/11 counter terrorist hysteria. Great touch.
But everything else about this movie is so predictable as to be ridiculous. Their suspect is known to love the LA Dodgers (He’s a Muslim from Eastern Europe. Why, exactly, has he fallen for baseball?). They search Dodger Stadium, game after game, and think they spot him.
No! Wrong guy. But wait, five rows further up. It’s him!
Ray and Jess have just been told they don’t have a case, get in an elevator, who should get in on the next floor? The suspect. Free to go.
“Secret in Their Eyes” has so many coincidences like this in it to be risible. And whatever the virtues of this fine cast, the whole sexual tension/love interest between Ray and Claire never registers. Even though it’s a major engine of the plot.
Perhaps some of the same flaws lay beneath the surface of the original film, but the distraction of subtitles helped hide them. Here, they’re gaping holes knock “Secret” off the tracks long before it’s far-fetched twist ending.
Still, we have the pleasure of Roberts’ company, dialing down the glamour, playing her age and wearing it without vanity, a woman caught in the first throes of grief and revisited years later, after it has drained all the life from her eyes.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references
Cast: Chiwetel Ejifor, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Alfred Molina,
Credits: Written and directed by Billy Ray, based on the Argentinian film by Juan José Campanella. An STX release.
Running time: 1:51