‘Secret in Their Eyes’ Is the Fall’s Most Bafflingly Bad Movie

Secret in Their Eyes is a puzzle. I’m not talking about the movie itself, a would-be procedural of crime scenes, interrogations, and batshit twists (more on those later); I’m talking about elements of its very existence. First of all, how is a movie starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts opening with such little fanfare, from an unknown distributor? (Based on the last two names alone, this would’ve been the must-see movie of 2003.) Alas, the answer to that question is simple: It’s bad, very bad, unquestionably so. But that prompts a second question: How did a movie with this kind of pedigree turn out this way?

Don’t go to the credits; they won’t help you. The source material is El Secreto De Sus Ojos, the 2009 Argentian thriller that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The writer/director is Billy Ray, whose filmography is impeccable: the screenplays for Captain Phillips, State of Play, and the first Hunger Games, as well as his own directorial efforts, Breach and Shattered Glass. All of his work pulses with a quiet efficiency and no-nonsense professionalism — he makes movies about grown-ups, for grown-ups.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julia Roberts in "Secret in Their Eyes"

And he netted a first-rate cast; in addition to the aforementioned Ejiofor (doing his smartest-guy-in-the-room thing), Kidman (doing her icy/sexy/brilliant thing), and Roberts (doing her de-glammed-raw-emotion thing), the supporting roles are filled by such ace character actors as Alfred Molina, Michael Kelly, and Dean Norris. Daniel Moder’s cinematography is moody and evocative, casting a gunmetal blue pall over the proceedings. On paper, this movie works. On screen, it just lies there.

It’s not that the story doesn’t have potential. Ejifor plays Ray, a former FBI man whose work on a counterterrorism unit in the months after 9/11 was derailed by his obsessive investigation of the murder of Carolyn Cobb, the teenage daughter of his colleague Jess (Roberts). Their ally at the DA’s office was his unrequited love Claire (Kidman), and when Ray returns to Los Angeles 13 years after those events, Claire is now the district attorney, and there’s still something sparking between them. But that’s not why he’s back; it’s because he thinks he’s finally tracked down the man who killed Jess’ daughter.

Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Secret in Their Eyes"

The two stories are told simultaneously, with the events of the present triggering memories of the past. It’s all executed competently enough, but the picture is weirdly off-key, in a way that’s difficult to describe. The dialogue and staging feel less like a big-screen drama than a cop show (and pretty middling one at that); the players elevate it, but they can only do so much. Ray’s usual ear for crisp, loaded shop-talk all but fails him here; everyone talks like a character in a movie, and the flirtatious dialogue between Ejiofor and Kidman is particularly painful. (The way she looks at him says more than any of their strained exchanges.) You just keep waiting for it to take flight, for some clue as to why these talented people are spinning their wheels with such subpar material.

And then there’s a big plot twist in the third act, which I won’t tip beyond noting it’s staggeringly stupid — though that twist is Keyser Soze stuff compared to the even stupider, second twist that follows. Yes, those twists were in the original, and we’ve learned the hard way about futzing with endings when you’re remaking foreign thrillers. But the fact that these turns play so poorly speaks, perhaps, to the inherent imprudence of such remakes; left with so few clues pointing elsewhere, I can’t help but wonder if the absence of Ray’s usual gifts is the result of overabundant fidelity to the source material. It’s a flawed theory, but seriously, it’s the best I’ve got.

The performers do their best — Ejiofor works his role admirably, Kidman has a scene with the suspect that’s a marvel of hiss acting, and the moment where Roberts realizes what’s happened to her daughter is powerful and riveting. But elsewhere, her director hangs her out to dry, and even Ejiofor can’t sell some of these beats. Ultimately, their hard work is for a lost cause; Secret, like Prisoners a couple years back, is a great-looking, well-cast thriller that goes nowhere and does nothing. What a waste.

Secret In Their Eyes is out Friday.