Julia Roberts removes makeup in U.S. remake
The Oscar-winning film from Argentina gets an American reboot with the help of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and the star of Pretty Woman, but director Billy Ray fails to craft the chaos in a meaningful way
The Secret in Their Eyes
Directed by: Billy Ray
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts
Running time 111 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
There was a good movie somewhere in this mess. You can feel it around the edges of Julia Roberts’s decidedly unglamorous performance, and in every half-breath taken by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lovesick character.
Genius lies in the wreckage because The Secret in Their Eyes has already won an Oscar, back in 2009, when it picked up the statuette for best foreign film under the direction of Juan Jose Campanella.
Originally set against the backdrop of Argentina’s political and judicial corruption, The Secret in Their Eyes begins in familiar thriller terrain. A female body is discovered in a dumpster, and the cops begin the long, difficult path of bringing the perpetrator to justice.
It’s standard TV procedural, until one of the officers jumps in the bin and starts holding and caressing the corpse: The dead girl is her daughter, which means The Secret in Their Eyes will not operate from behind the yellow tape as an observer.
This is a movie where everyone is involved in everyone else’s business, and no one party has the exclusive on morality –not even the people at the very top of the pyramid, or those with a badge and a gun.
Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Jess (Julia Roberts) are the ones with the guns and badges, and in the opening frames, they look like any other set of heroic detectives eager to get their perp.
But something profound shifts when Jess’s daughter is found in the opening scene: professional detachment and personal emotion catalyze, creating a completely different moral scale—not just for Jess, but every character she’s connected to, particularly Ray.
Ray has been trying to get the man who murdered Jess’s kid for years. He goes home every night and looks at mug shots, hoping he’ll see the face that destroyed his happiness and turned his best friend into an insular depressive.
But that’s not the only thing he’s hoping for: Ray is desperately in love with Claire, the former prosecutor who was recently named DA.
Claire, Jess and Ray are all bound by the tragic loss of Jess’s daughter, and each one of them feels professionally bound to do something – but also, professionally stifled.
Their job demands arms-length emotional responses, but every one of these characters aches for a genuine embrace – and that’s where the real conflict lies: In their own souls as they search for true love in a landscape littered with convenient lies, expedient half-truths and official denials.
In a Latin American context, this war between human morality and institutional corruption has real roots, and feels like a natural extension of a chaotic environment where people learn to live with a certain amount of disorder.
But transplanted into a North American milieu, where Hollywood has a long, established tradition of painting police thrillers as black and white as a squad car, The Secret in Their Eyes has a hard time maintaining focus.
Everything starts to feel blurry far too quickly because we’re trained to find moral landmarks, and no one feels solid. More problematically, no one feels genuinely connected to each other.
Roberts, Kidman and Ejiofor never feel like they’re on the same page. They come close every once in a while when they have a scene that lasts longer than five or ten minutes, but director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) fails to tie them all together with the required slipknots.
For this movie to really work, every character’s actions had to affect the others’—slowly pulling each character closer and closer together, until there’s no slack in the rope, and everyone is gasping for breath.
That was the beauty of Juan Jose Campanella’s dramatic design: The more each character tried to wriggle away and deny the truth, the more connected everyone became as full disclosure threatened even the most benevolent lies.
It was such a twisted piece of genius as it undermined any sense of morality, and you can tell Billy Ray was eager to duplicate it on that level, but it’s the one facet of his remake that never feels right because it’s fastened to American foundations.
The only real hint of Hollywood revisionism in this film is Julia Roberts – who essentially deconstructs her entire Pretty Woman identity as America’s Sweetheart to take on the role of vengeful, depressive Jess.
Letting us see her face without makeup – a solid step towards Oscar greatness – Roberts puts the diva crap in a drawer and sinks her teeth into the part of a tough police woman struggling to keep it together.
It’s a great display of range and a brave display of pores, but for all the grand risks, gorgeously underplayed bits of drama, and Latin American provenance, The Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t come close to matching the dramatic power of its Spanish-speaking predecessor because in Hollywood’s un-littered universe, human chaos just looks messy.