Remakes and politically-charged thrillers are hard to do, especially when they’re put together. Every decade has had real-life tragedy and political climates for Hollywood to build movies off of. Atomic weapons, Internet hacking, drones, terrorism and Communism have all been used in some way or another to make a bad guy in movies that audiences can gawk at and say,” Wow, so realistic!” Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. In the case of this movie’s basis, it worked. It’s remake..not so much.
Secret in Their Eyes is a remake of the 2009 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, The Secret in Their Eyes. Now in the hands of writer/director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach), the story starts in 2002 with a team of FBI anti-terrorism investigators. Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Jess (Julia Roberts) are good friends with their eyes to the news as the country is still shaken up months after September 11th. Ray and Jess are called out to investigate a dead body left in a dumpster behind a mosque, but it turns out the body is Jess’ daughter. Ray knows the guy who did it and tries to get the District Attorney supervisor, Claire (Nicole Kidman) to prosecute him. It turns out the guy is an informant for the government and he’s let go scot-free. 13 years later, Ray now works private security and has spent over a decade trying to find the killer. He thinks he has and returns to Claire and Jess hoping to reopen the case. Between Claire’s lack of evidence and Jess’ emotional state, there’s still a lot of dirt underneath this case.
The difference between the original and the remake is the Argentinian original focused on the Dirty War between 1974 and 1983. The remake uses the paranoia and added security of the War on Terror to build roadblocks for Ray and co. to convict the supposed killer. It all feels like something to fill out the rest of the plot and extend the movie’s 111-minute runtime. Perhaps keeping the mystery of who the killer is would’ve served as interesting enough, but the shoehorning of post-9/11 politics and police work is a bit distracting.
It’s all the more distracting to the A-list cast, who are all on-point here. Ejiofor is stern and determined, and it all feels natural. Kidman is a bit stiff but she gets to show some grit, especially in an interrogation scene late in the movie. However, Ray and Claire are supposed to have a “will they or won’t they” type romance but Kidman and Ejiofor have very little chemistry. Anytime they try to have a romantic longing scene, nothing sparks. Fortunately for the movie, there’s Julia Roberts in the best performance she’s given in over a decade. Deglamorized and focused, Roberts is almost vicious in the pursuit of the killer. When Jess states that her daughter was the thing that made her who she was, it’s believable as hell and it feels like her soul died.
What holds back Secret in Their Eyes is its excuse for added plot. It all feels like pandering to the current thing that scares people in the country. It isn’t a good substitute for an interesting narrative or more fleshed-out characters. Baiting an audience to create drama is not the same as building drama itself.