The crime drama-thriller has proven to be timelessly popular in both film and television. With Secret in Their Eyes, adapted from the Argentinian Academy award-winning El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010, directed by Juan José Campanella), we are offered one headlined by three top names in Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman.
Secret in Their Eyes is set in Los Angeles, and centres on the city’s district attorney’s office where two friends, Ray Karsten (Ejiofor) and Jess Cobb (Roberts) and newly-hired assistant DA Claire Sloan (Kidman) work. Against the backdrop of the then President George W. Bush’s controversial War on Terror, Ray has been assigned to the FBI’s counter-terrorism investigation team. When a young female body is found in a dumpster next to a mosque, Ray and Jess are called in to investigate and discover, much to their horror, that the body is that of Carolyn, Jess’s teenage daughter. Though it is not his case, Ray goes above and beyond to bring Jess a sense of closure by prosecuting the murderer, causing much distress to his team and putting his job at risk. Ray finds himself in a tug-of-war for authority with Claire, who he is helplessly attracted to. Another trial he faces, unbeknownst to him, is that the criminal he seeks is institutionally protected. Thirteen years later, though Ray has gone into the private sector, he returns to the DA office, determined to reopen the case and have the matter resolved once and for all.
Ejiofor does his best with what is essentially a two-dimensional character. Kidman portrays the alternately sweet and stringent Claire effortlessly, allowing her natural illustriousness to shine throughout. Roberts provides the most enthralling performance. Her turn as the broken-hearted mother is stirring, and her unpredictability is intriguing to watch. Hers is also the only character that undergoes any kind of change and development.
Unfortunately, one is forced to question where the sense of anticipation and exhilaration that writer-director Billy Ray brought to his previous scriptwriting credits (like Captain Philips and The Hunger Games) has gone. Just as El Secreto de Los Ojos provided a sociopolitical critique of Argentinian history, there seems to be an underlying commentary on Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ in Secret in Their Eyes but it is never overtly critical, the plot focusing instead on flat character drama. The audience is confronted by a country fuelled by paranoia, but this setting feels dropped in without being properly thought out. After New York is attacked, all are convinced that LA is the next target, but one gets the sense that this story comes too late and at the same time is not historically exploratory. On the other hand, the twist ending does provide an interesting take on America’s system of crime and punishment, and on its rather deranged prison systems.
With a classic generic opening, in the rape and murder of a young attractive girl, and an unrequited love story to give a tug on the heart strings weaved into the plotline, Secret in Their Eyes brings nothing new to the table. In spite of its clearly talented cast, the characters are uninteresting, the narrative is for the most part predictable, and it is disappointingly lacking in thrill factor.