Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
  • Time: 111 min
  • Genre: Mystery | Thriller
  • Director: Billy Ray
  • Cast: Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman


A tight-knit team of rising investigators – Ray and Jess, along with their supervisor Claire – is suddenly torn apart when they discover that Jess’s teenage daughter has been brutally and inexplicably murdered. Now, thirteen years later, after obsessively searching every day for the elusive killer, Ray finally uncovers a new lead that he’s certain can permanently resolve the case, nail the vicious murderer, and bring long-desired closure to his team. No one is prepared, however, for the shocking, unspeakable secret that will reveal the enduring, destructive effects of personal vengeance on the human soul.


  • (Rating: ☆☆ out of 4)

    This film is not recommended.

    In brief: The real crime is remaking this remake.

    GRADE: C+

    Hollywood rarely improves upon a remake, especially in the foreign film genre. Such is the case, once again, in Secret in Their Eyes. Based on its far better source, the 2010 Oscar-winning Argentine film bearing the same name, this version unduly complicates an already complicated plot with political corruption and a terrorist backstory that does little to enhance the story. Whereas, both films intermesh the crime tale with a love story between its two central characters, the American reboot fails to successfully engage its audience with the latter storyline.

    Written and directed by Billy Ray, this film tells the story of an unsolved murder that has haunted its characters for over a decade. The filmmaker takes the essence of the earlier film and unlike that film, raises the stakes by wisely personalizes the murder this time around. Ray Caston and Jess Cobb are two FBI agents who arrive at the crime scene, only to discover that the victim is Jess’s daughter, Carolyn. Her death haunts both agents over the years, including the acting DA, Claire, who happens to be Ray’s unrequited love. Throughout the past 13 years, Ray continues to hunt for Carolyn’s killer and believes he has finally found the culprit. He wants the case reopened and to also reopen his relationship with his object of affection as well.

    An interesting premise, but the crime story never builds to much excitement and the love story seems to go nowhere. A capable cast has been assembled with Chiwetel Ejiofor as the brooding detective assigned to the case. Even though the actor tries valiantly to add some depth to his weakly-drawn character, he still comes across as an unhinged vigilante rather than heroic cop. This character never seems realistic or believable as written, nor do any of the characters in this version. A miscast Nicole Kidman plays Claire as an ice princess type and has zero chemistry with Mr. Ejiofor. In fact, the only reason to see this remake is the powerful acting done by Julia Roberts as the grieving mother. The actress downplays her beauty and gives a remarkably nuanced performance that deserves Oscar consideration.

    As for the film itself, the script is muddled and the flashback format’s choppiness doesn’t help matters. One can only tell past versus present events by the hair and make-up aging process (or lack there of with Ms. Roberts). Some of the supporting characters (an unethical officer, the overly ambitious politician, the trusty sidekick, etc.) become stereotypes and the dialog is standard TV crime drama.

    Secret in Their Eyes is a crime thriller without much thrills. The murder mystery just does not blend with the love story and the moviegoer becomes its final victim. Rent the Argentine film instead to see how to skillfully combine both genres.

    NOTE: In my original review (June 3, 2010, go to archives in this blog to read it, if interested), I bemoan the fact back then that remakes are a less quality. Somethings just don’t improve with age.

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  • “Passion always wins, right?” Uh, no. The point of Secret in their Eyes is rather the mortal cost of passions irrationally pursued.
    The plot’s trigger is a young loser’s sudden passion for a blonde beauty that leads to his raping and killing her. It erupts again when he’s taunted by the beautiful lawyer Claire (Nicole Kidman). The killer is freed because he’s a snitch serving the police as an insider in a suspicious mosque. The passionate fear after 9/11 leads to the cops’ suspension of the law, sense and responsibility.
    The second layer of misspent passion is the two characters’ determination to correct that injustice. Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) quits the force to work in civilian security — protecting the hapless Mets — but spends 13 years of evenings checking through files of criminal faces to find that killer.
    The murdered girl’s detective mother Jess (Julia Roberts) seems to share that determination to find the killer. But we ultimately learn she already has him. She has kept him in a shed for those 13 years, preferring thus to give him a life sentence rather than the release of execution. But as Ray points out, she has been serving that life sentence with him, as his restricted jailer.
    Ray’s colleague Bumpy still has the limp caused by his chase of the killer. “What limp?” he asks, wielding his cane, in a comic parallel to Jess and Ray crippling themselves by their obsession.
    Ray is paralyzed by another passion, his unexpressed love for his former colleague, now DA, Claire. He left his “great” wife “Because she wasn’t you.” Now, 13 years later, Claire’s husband Ellis reveals he has always known she loved Ray not him. Her “We blew it” refers to the unrealized love between Claire and Ray, as well as their case against the killer.
    So some passions lose because they’re not followed up, as Ray failed to ask out Claire because she was engaged. “We understand each other” is her description of her marriage, a pale consolation for a failed ardor. As Ray is played by the black Ejiofor his color provides another reason for his failure to have approached her. Her boss warns the community college grad against presuming to the Harvard whiz, but the racial divide was another unspoken barrier between them.
    But the main losers from passion are the obsessives who can’t let go and can’t modulate their driving forces. Claire rises through the ranks because of her determination. She’s always in control, careful to avoid excess. We see that when she exposes the killer by seeming to release him. Jess and Ray have the discipline of control and the determination to find justice — noble imperatives both — but step over the line into obsession, into the irrationality that diminishes their lives.
    The title comes from the source Argentinian film. The opening shot establishes eyes digging for a secret in files and files of mug shots. Ray’s secret is his search, Jess’s her successful vengeance and Claire’s her drive to power. People may advance a very firm image but their essential secret lies in their eyes. And lies and lies and lies.
    All this psychodrama plays against a specific political context. The early scenes occur in the wake of 9/11, when America was driven by fears of Muslim terrorists and the rumour of sleeper cells about to erupt. The later are now, when our remains full of fear. The passion to fight that threat at whatever cost, to the point of destroying the values we are supposedly defending, is the national parallel to the personal passions exposed here as paralyzing and destructive. Mania in pursuit of our values is still mania. As the police boss Morales (an ironic name if there ever was one) and bad cop Siefert betray their office and justice, they embody the nation’s temptation to compromise its essential values for the putative purpose of defending them. Winning that way is really losing.

  • Dean Norris has been a working actor for over thirty years. He’s not lousy with his craft yet when he’s in front of the camera, it feels an awful lot like direct-to-video territory. Case in point: Secret in Their Eyes (my latest review) co-stars Norris and stars Academy Award winner Julia Roberts plus recent nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor. As a remake of 2009’s Argentine film with the identical title, “Eyes” is something for the Lifetime channel, a reheated vehicle throwing in two ending twists just for the sheer heck of it. Imagine Zodiac and Mystic River posing as TV movies trimmed down with just enough commercials to fill the two-hour mark. That’s the essence of “Eyes” with its systematic grandstanding posing as controlled, Oscar bait.

    Produced by Mark Johnson (Rain Man, The Alamo, The Notebook) and featuring every trouper aching to give the performance of a lifetime, Secret in Their Eyes doesn’t quite have the scope or production values to garner end-of-the-year, awards consideration. That doesn’t stop it from taking things way, way too seriously. The story begins by chronicling FBI investigator Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts). It’s just a typical day at the bureau where agents are on the lookout for relegated, terrorist activity (9/11 happened very recently). When Jess and her close-knit partner (Ray Kasten played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are called over to check out a murder scene (a dead body lies in a dumpster somewhere near FBI headquarters), the victim turns out to be Cobb’s teenage daughter (Zoe Graham as Carolyn Cobb). Ejiofor’s Ray somehow feels responsible for her death (the film explains why very briefly) and becomes obsessed with finding the killer. He veers from his work duties and turns into a homicide detective by spending many years on the Internet (looking for pictures of every criminal in the U.S.). In terms of more casting, Nicole Kidman (Claire Sloan) plays a District Attorney supervisor to Cobb and Kasten. Also, the chameleon-like Alfred Molina does great supporting work as Kidman’s character’s principal.

    Now during the majority of Secret in Their Eyes, scenes cut back and forth between the years 2002 and present day. The film does this so often and so unnecessarily, I wouldn’t know what time period it was had it not been for a few gray hairs on beards plus a side character going completely bald. I read somewhere that a critic deemed this thirteen-year, flashback fest as causing “Eyes” to constantly lose its tension. I wouldn’t say that’s the case. However, the hook featured is more of a gimmick than anything else. If I was in charge of editing, I would just shoot the whole darn thing chronologically. It’s the same narrative anyway you look at it.

    Overall, I don’t think of Secret in Their Eyes as a bad film. I mean, I didn’t pick up on its gotcha endings and the caliber of acting is at most, adequate (the role Julia Roberts plays isn’t much of a stretch for her and Chiwetel Ejiofor emotes to the point where it’s overblown). I’m also praising “Eyes” for its ability to make you wanna watch it again the minute its over (I started to make a small, mental checklist in my head of all the previous sequences that occurred). Its look and feel however, that’s a different story. What’s on screen makes for a conventional, wonted viewing experience. In a sense, director Billy Ray isn’t really shooting for the stars. It’s more like he’s auditioning for an extended contract on USA network. Rating: 2 and a half stars.

    Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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  • Passion is a powerful thing. It can overwhelm and consume, compromise and obfuscate. It can be a great motivator, but it can also destroy. The word passion serves as a guiding light in Secret in Their Eyes, an American remake of the 2009 Spanish-Argentinian film which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar over such stiff competition as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

    One can see how director Juan Jose Campanella’s thriller, an engrossing and melancholic pulp policier capped with a genuinely surprising twist, would be a draw for Hollywood. Yet, as is very often the case, something has been lost in the translation. In and of itself, the remake is a solid and competent work, deviating just enough from the original to set itself apart whilst being canny enough to recreate the most memorable moments of Campanella’s film with little to no alteration. The fact that writer-director Billy Ray’s version comes most alive during the sequences most similar to the 2009 film is already a crucial signifier of its failings.

    Hopscotching between 2015 and 2002, the story hinges on a particularly brutal murder of a young woman who was beaten and raped before being killed and doused in bleach to eliminate any DNA that could betray the killer. FBI investigator Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has been working with a special task force to investigate terrorist cells in Los Angeles following the 9/11 attacks, is horrified to discover that the victim, whose body was ditched in a dumpster behind a mosque, is the daughter of his partner, Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts). This plot point is the script’s biggest change from the original story, and Roberts’ anguish over the loss of her character’s daughter and Ejiofor’s helplessness are heartbreaking. Ray and cinematographer Danny Moder create something truly affecting here – that shot of Kasten standing by the dumpster containing the bereaved Cobb and her lifeless child is resonant not only for what is visible in the frame but more so for what is hidden.

    Though there is scant evidence, Kasten latches onto a young man named Marzin (Joe Cole), whose image is on both the FBI’s surveillance photos of the mosque as well as a photograph of a company picnic attended by Cobb and her daughter. Marzin, however, also happens to be a key informant for Kasten’s colleague Reg (Michael Kelly) and boss Morales (Alfred Molina) and is thus deemed untouchable – the safety of the country against a potential terror attack far outweighs justice for one of their own. Kasten cannot let it go, not after Marzin walks free, not after 13 years of poring over thousands and thousands of police mugshots. When he finally identifies a recent parolee he believes to be Marzin, Kasten returns to his old offices to ask district attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman), with whom he’s shared an unrequited attraction, to re-open the case so they can convict Marzin once and for all and bring piece and closure to Cobb.

    Personal and professional pursuits blur and intertwine in Secret in Their Eyes with passion being the main engine. Cobb speaks of passion winning out, of passion defining a person whether it be passion for her daughter or Kasten’s passion in pursuing the truth or Sloan’s passion in tamping down her romantic desires in order to achieve her professional ambitions. Passion, whatever its form, ultimately becomes a prison that is an uneasy but accepted home for all three characters. The main problem with Secret in Their Eyes is that passion is never truly felt. One understands why Kasten, Cobb and Sloan behave the way they do even if it actually does not make any sense. Kasten, especially, is most befuddling in his determined obsession partly because, despite the flashbacks to happier times with Cobb and her daughter, one never registers the history between the two colleagues, so why the unwavering doggedness?

    A similar problem plagues the romantic bond between Kasten and Sloan. Now Kidman is one of the best flirts onscreen, often revealing a coquettishness beneath her cool exterior, but even she cannot muster any sparks with Ejiofor. Kidman, however, does nail one of the film’s most absorbing scenes as Sloan goads the tight-lipped Marzin, questioning his virility and sexually humiliating him. Roberts is given one note to play, but she plays it well, shrouding herself in grief and suitably conveying a hollowed haggardness.

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  • A lot of people write American remakes off before they’ve even seen them. The reason for this I don’t know. Possible there’s just been too many poorly done ones in the past, or perhaps people who enjoy foreign versions of things aren’t as inclined to enjoy American cinema. I absolutely loved the original ‘Oldboy’ and was personally delighted when I heard they were doing an American remake. And to me it was a very good film which stayed true to the original while putting its own unique style on it at the same time. However try telling the die-hard fans of the original that the remake is good and they’ll lynch you. I can’t help but wonder how much of this type of opinion has gone into ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’, or are people just seeing it for what it really is – a subpar movie.

    I’d neither seen, nor even heard of the original version before seeing this one so I went in with no preconceived notions or ideas of how the story would play out. It was admittedly a little slow, there isn’t a great deal of action sequences and those that there are are brief and pretty forgettable. It’s a dialogue driven movie, which is fine, only to pull that off the dialogue has to be snappy and clever. It often lacks both of these things. The story itself is interesting enough to pull it through though and the star power of Julie Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor is enough to cover up a lot of the faults.

    However, you can tell the movie is depending a lot on its “twist” to win viewers over. It’s basically saying, “OK we know the first hour and a half has been a bit messy and forgettable, but here’s this, forgive us now?” Unfortunately I don’t think it was quite enough to make up for most of it. I suspect had this been a lower budget movie that couldn’t afford the fine actors it did get on board it would be in real trouble right now because as a film alone it wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own two legs. As someone who really likes to see films get the “American” treatment, I hope this film hasn’t damaged the hopes of future remakes being done. It shouldn’t have. It’s not harming anyone, it’s just not overly great.

  • There are probably as many different evening routines over the course of an average week as there are people in the U.S. Some go to movies, while others go clubbing or just hang out with family and friends. Some stay inside pursuing hobbies like gaming, reading or even coin collecting, while others prefer to lounge in front of the TV or the computer or just go to bed early to get some extra shut-eye after a long work day. But few do anything like what ex-cop Ray Caston does. Ignoring family and friends, eschewing the simple pleasures of an enjoyable past-time, after his day’s work is done, he sits in front of his office computer and scrolls through mug shots, hoping to solve a 13-year-old murder case. It’s amazing what strong personal loyalty and an overwhelming sense of guilt can drive a man to do, yet that’s exactly what we see play out in the mystery-thriller “Secret in Their Eyes” (PG-13, 1:51).

    In 2002, single mom and police officer Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) loses her teenage daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham), to a brutal, cold and calculating rape and murder. For reasons we won’t reveal here, Carolyn’s friend and partner feels personally responsible for what happened. Ray is actually an FBI agent working with Jess on the LAPD’s counter-terrorism task force, but he sets out on a mission with co-worker Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris) to find Carolyn’s killer. When they think they’ve found their man, there’s a problem… actually, several of them. Claire, the task force’s prosecutor (Nicole Kidman), to whom Ray happens to be romantically attracted, doesn’t think Ray has enough evidence to prosecute, while co-worker Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly) does everything he can to block Ray’s investigation.

    You see, all this is happening just a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Los Angeles is certain that they’re going to be the next target. Ray’s “person of interest” in Carolyn’s rape and murder is a man named Marzin (Joe Cole), a member of a local mosque out of which a terrorist sleeper cell is operating. Reg thinks that Marzin is the task force’s key to breaking up that cell. Politically-ambitious L.A. district attorney, Martin Morales (Alfred Molina) won’t charge Marzin, citing all the arguments that Ray gets from both Claire and Reg. Ray gets Marzin to come in for questioning and elicits what some might consider a confession, but is forced to let him go free. Claire is sympathetic but unable to help, Ray is incredibly frustrated and Jess, who was already despondent, “dies just a little bit more.”

    Ray left the bureau shortly after the unsuccessful attempt to charge Marzin with Carolyn’s murder. Claire remained a cop, but moved out to the country. Marzin dropped off the radar and Ray took a private sector job across the country, but never gave up the fight for justice, and his goal to bring some peace to his old friend. Ray’s sure that a guy like Marzin would end up in the prison system eventually, so he spent his evenings (13 years’ worth!) looking at digital images of every adult white male inmate in the U.S. When he finally found a familiar face, he went back to L.A. to present his evidence. Claire is now L.A.’s assistant DA, but she’s skeptical of the information that Ray brings to her. At this point, even Jess seems hesitant to get involved in re-opening the case. Bumpy is still around as is willing to help, but, just like back in 2002, Ray and Bumpy are operating beyond their authority and using highly questionable methods to pursue a suspect simply based on their suspicions of who he is and what he’s done.

    “The Secret in Their Eyes” is the second film adaptation of Eduardo Sacheri’s 2005 novel “La pregunta de sus ojos” (“The Question in Their Eyes”). The first was the 2009 Argentine-Spanish movie, “El secreto de sus ojos” (“The Secret in Their Eyes”). That film won an Oscar (for Best Foreign Language Film). “Secret in Their Eyes”, will not (at least not for the film as a whole). The 2015 treatment is only very loosely based on the source material and has significant scripting and editing issues. The film’s strengths lie in its performances, its basic premise and the story’s resolution. Ejiofor and Kidman are both excellent, while Roberts gives what may be the best performance of her storied career. The drama is compelling and the plot twists late in the movie are as unexpected as they are shocking, but getting there means dealing with some non-sensical decisions by the filmmakers. The script has cops doing things that would generally ruin any chance for a successful prosecution of the guilty, and telling the story by jumping back and forth between events in 2002 and 2015 was sometimes confusing and completely unnecessary.

    “Secret in Their Eyes” wants to be more shocking than it is, but partially sabotages itself with fixable flaws. This movie has enough going for it to recommend it to fans of the film’s actors and/or movies in the mystery and thriller genres, but it could have been so much better. Go to the movie for the drama of an Oscar-winning actress pursuing justice for her murdered daughter and stay for the wicked twists, just do your best to ignore the film’s distracting editing choices and the characters’ lapses in logic. “B”

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