Adapted from an Argentinian novel of the same name, Secret in Their Eyes is a hit-and-miss affair about two detectives, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Jess (Julia Roberts), who are tested by a harrowing murder case involving the latter’s daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham).
Aided by Claire (Nicole Kidman), a talented lawyer, and spanning over 13 years, the trio must untangle a web of lies inside their very own precinct if they are going to bring the person responsible to justice.
As the lead, Ejiofor squeezes the spongy material for everything it’s worth, carrying himself through each scene with a grim intensity and emotional range that elevates the film and everyone in it. Driven by harrowing self-reproach and quivering anger, his performance is easily the best thing here. Julia Roberts isn’t given much to work with as the bedraggled mother racked with guilt whilst Nicole Kidman’s stiff lawyer character seems out of place surrounded by deceitful detectives and twisted killers.
Billy Ray’s screenwriting credentials are more extensive than his directorial work, but in Secret in Their Eyes it’s the latter element that feels the strongest. Ray keeps the camera locked on the tormented faces of the cast, lingering on the emotive Ejiofor in particular; he also does an excellent job with the plush LA backdrops, complete with night scenes that ooze this brooding atmosphere and menace.
On the other hand, the screenplay often struggles to balance the two concurrent timelines; the first act is a little slow, weighed down by clunky exposition and character introductions, whilst the second loses itself in a romance subplot that doesn’t really add much to the overall story. Plus, Ray switches between the two timelines all too often, sometimes just as a scene is actually about to get interesting. Rather than adding drama, this technique slows the pace of the film to a crawl. It’s not until the third act where all the lies, counter claims and half-truths come to the fore that the two intersecting timelines begin to pay off.
In typical pulpy fashion, the chilling conclusion is packed with rug pulls and plot twists aplenty; whilst this element works really well, I felt like the internal logic the film followed to get us there was ultimately flawed at times. In order to move the plot from A to B, the film forces its characters into making nonsensical assumptions that would even bring out the sceptical side in Edward de Bono. In one scene, our main characters attend a baseball game based solely on the theory that their suspect is a huge Dodgers fan; mere minutes into the game and lo and behold, there he is! Only three rows behind them in a crowd of 50,000 people! What are the chances!
With the right director at the helm, I feel like the source material could’ve been adapted into something really special; in the hands of someone like David Fincher or Denis Villeneuve, neither of whom are strangers to a grim narrative about desperate people doing desperate things, Secret in Their Eyes could’ve potentially been this compelling, twisty character-driven narrative akin to Gone Girl or Prisoners.
Instead, Secret in Their Eyes is the cinematic equivalent of that book you buy at the airport because you’re going to Bali and you need something to lazily skim through whilst sipping cocktails by the pool; you’ve seen the story a thousand times before, but it’s decent enough to occupy the time.
The Verdict: 6/10
Ejiofor and Roberts give it their best shot, but the creaky dialogue and nonsensical plot hold this one back from true greatness.
Secret in Their Eyes is in cinemas across Australia now. This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.