Shortly after the events of September 11th, 2001, a young woman is found murdered and stuffed in a dumpster, all traces of DNA having been bleached from her body. But the atrocity is made all the more horrific when federal agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) recognizes the girl as the daughter of fellow counter-terrorism operative Jess (Julia Roberts), who just arrived at the crime scene. The moment when Ray breaks the news and Jess succumbs to a gut-wrenching display of grief is the best that Secret in Their Eyes has to offer – it’s all downhill from there.
A remake of the 2009 Oscar Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Secret in Their Eyes follows the same basic plot of the original film: a retired investigator can’t stop obsessing over the worst case of his career – not to mention the colleague (Nicole Kidman) that he fell in love with during the investigation – and years later finds himself drawn back to both fixations and seeking closure.
Frequently juxtaposing between timelines, Secret in Their Eyes recounts the original investigation and arrest of a suspect who ultimately goes free, and the present-day search for the killer, which opens plenty of old wounds for nearly everyone involved. Both searches are advanced through completely implausible leaps in logic, like a poorly written episode of Law and Order: SVU, and actions scenes that were so thrilling in the original film are devoid of any tension here.
The biggest change here is that the character of Jess didn’t exist in the original film, or the novel on which it was based. The idea of the victim being related to one of the investigators certainly adds another layer of intrigue, but the script from director Billy Ray wastes a tremendous opportunity by doing almost nothing with this notion. Instead, it only serves to make several elements of the film seem even more far-fetched and convenient than they already are – which is saying a lot.
The romance between Ejiofor and Kidman lacks any semblance of authenticity, and with the exception of the aforementioned moment of grieving, Roberts does little but shamble from scene to scene. With her pale skin, limp hair and sunken eyes, this is the most unglamorous we’ve ever seen her, and I’m sure it’s meant to convey the mighty toll her daughter’s death has taken on her, but there’s something incredibly disingenuous about it.
In fact, that’s an adequate descriptor for this film as a whole. Secret in Their Eyes would very much like the audience to believe that it’s every bit as good as – if not better than – the original film, but the sad truth is that an immensely talented cast has been squandered on a mediocre script that eschews all subtlety and nuance. Moving the story to post-9/11 America and eliminating some of the more compelling subplots in favor of a shorter running time has reduced Secret in Their Eyes to little more than a paint-by-numbers thriller whose “twists” have no real impact, and whose biggest achievement will be convincing viewers to check out the 2009 version instead.