During the early scenes of Billy Ray's Secret in Their Eyes (a remake of the Oscar-winning Argentinian film The Secret in Their Eyes), I couldn't shake the feeling that something was off. It took me 20 or 30 minutes to pinpoint it, but finally it dawned on me: this is an R-rated story being told through a PG-13 lens. The film is a downbeat, sordid, twisty crime drama that contains an abundance of murder, revenge, rape and brutality, but the edges have been sanded off to such a striking degree that the whole thing feels curiously phony. It was unsurprising to learn that the film was actually shot as an R-rated feature, but edited down to PG-13 in a bid to make it more accessible to mass audiences. Unfortunately, a lack of grit isn't the film's only significant problem.
The non-linear narrative spends most of its time jumping back and forth between 2002 and 2015, with scenes from the past and present revealing assorted character connections and helping us piece the mystery together. The 2002 scenes begin with FBI counter-terrorism investigator Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), assistant DA Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman, Dogville) and DA investigator Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts, August: Osage County) investigating a murder scene. Ray takes a look at the body and makes a horrifying discovery: the victim is Jess' teenage daughter Caroline (Zoe Graham).
In 2015, we learn that the man suspected of committing the crime was never convicted, but has been missing for the past 13 years. After more than a decade of searching, Ray – who now works as a security chief for the New York Mets – claims to have located the murderer. Now, the only question is whether Claire (who is now the DA) and Jess (who is now the DA's chief investigator) want to help Ray pursue the matter officially, or whether a slightly less legal investigation into the matter will be required.
For a while, the story is casually absorbing in a “mystery-of-the-week” sort of way, and the unusual storytelling techniques make a fairly routine murder investigation a little more intriguing than it might have been otherwise. The movie has a knack for turning minor inconsistencies between the past and present into miniature mysteries to be solved, and Ray's direction is reminiscent of the sort of smooth, polished, toned-down work he brought to respectable dramas like Breach and Shattered Glass. Alas, as the film enters its second hour, the credibility-straining contrivances start to pile up with fairly alarming speed. The climax is meant to be intense, devastating stuff, but it's both too muted and too preposterous to make an impact.
The film is loaded with talented actors (in addition to the three leads, there are supporting turns from Alfred Molina, Dean Norris and Michael Kelly), but nobody is doing their best work here. There are too many moments that feel curiously miscalculated. Take a look at the scene where Ejiofor and Kidman confess feelings that they've kept buried for more than a decade. This is revelatory, difficult stuff for both of them, but it has all the emotional weight of two people talking about the weather. Roberts plays “numbed grief” well enough, but doesn't seem to know what to do with some of the later complications added to her character. It's hard to tell who to blame when good actors are off their game – maybe something went awry in the editing room, maybe they got poor direction, maybe they're just not into the material – but these folks can do (and have done) better.
It's a pity Secret in Their Eyes is such a mess, because there are seeds of good ideas floating around in the mix. It's clear that the filmmakers were aiming to deliver something more than a mere murder mystery, using the grisly crime plot as a springboard for explorations of grief, the toxic nature of revenge and a thoroughly broken legal system that leaves entirely too much room for error. Heck, the film even has some thought's on America's dangerous paranoia in the wake of 9/11. Alas, the film's big third-act developments simultaneously manage to muddle these themes and render a large portion of the story entirely pointless. It's not a boring movie, but it's a deeply unsatisfying one.
Secret in Their Eyes
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2015