Secret in Their Eyes: A Sleepy Tango, by David Bax
Maybe the most intriguing question raised by Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes is why the word “the” was omitted from the beginning of the title. It’s awkward and conspicuous enough to assume that it’s intentional but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the film itself that explains it. Nonetheless, having something ponder will at least kill time during this tepid and spiritless movie.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Ray, an FBI investigator who, in 2002, finds the raped and murdered body of Carolyn (Zoe Graham in flashbacks), the daughter of his partner, Jess (Julia Roberts). In the present day, he has left the Bureau but continued, on his own, the search for Carolyn’s killer. When he uncovers a solid lead, he returns, stirring things up for both Jess and district attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), with whom Ray had a flirtation thirteen years prior.
Secret cuts back and forth between the two time periods. The most fruitful result of that tactic is that it gives Ray the chance to plunge us back into post-9/11 paranoia, reopening issues of personal security vs. national security and revisiting the general sense of suspicion and caution that infected the nation, especially in governmental quarters like those in which the film takes place. The far less fruitful result is Ray’s attempt to use the thirteen year gap to create suspense. He sets up questions in the 2015 scenes (Why was Ray taken off the case? Why does Dean Norris’ character walk with a limp now?) that will eventually be answered in the 2002 scenes. The key word there is “eventually”; Ray teases out unsatisfying reveals far longer than they are worth waiting for.
For an ostensible thriller – even one that digs into the darker soils of humanity – Secret’s chief mode is inertia. Ray’s quiet and calculated, economical style has produced dramatic and emotional tension in the past (see his underrated Breach, from 2007). Here, though, he aims on occasion to inject a sense of sweep or grandeur to match the turgidity of Ray’s and Jess’ mental and moral turmoil. On each of these tries he comes up short. An aerial shot of a Dodgers game seems to be from another movie altogether. And a shot of a burning van in front of city hall at night – an image that is meant to be a narrative cornerstone – is too cropped and brief to have the impact it should.
Ray’s screenplay (adapted from the Argentinean film written by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri) is so untrusting of subtlety that, at one point, Jess literally tells Ray what their defining motivations are. Then again, maybe Ray is right not to leave too much up to his cast. Ejiofor and Kidman, whose potential romance is posited as just as much a driving force as the unsolved murder, never produce a single spark of electricity.
It’s not necessarily a sin for a film’s final act twists to be as predictable as the ones here. For an intelligent and sophisticated audience, that could just mean the seeds were planted well. In the case of Secret in Their Eyes, though, the end is guessable mostly because there’s not much else to think about in the meantime.