Secret in Their Eyes takes place in two different time periods, which it continually jumps between with little care or precision. The first time period is 2002, immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. and the second is the present day. The story is told in choppy intervals, but it basically goes like this. In a post 9/11 world, Ray (Ejiofor) is the leader of a team of terrorist investigators that specializes in terrorism surveillance and the like. Along with Jess (Roberts), Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly) and Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris), the team works to prevent another large-scale attack from hitting the U.S. However, their motivations are changed when they arrive at the scene of the vicious murder of Jess' daughter by a psychopathic individual. Ray is certain he knows who the killer is, but due to some suspicious circumstances, no charges are pressed and they go 13 years without an answer.
Cut to the present day. Ray is now a security adviser for the New York Mets. Claire (Nicole Kidman), who was just a young up-and-comer when the 2002 events went down, is now the District Attorney. And Jess is in a higher law enforcement position. While the others have moved on, Ray can't quite reconcile what happened in the past. He spends the 13 years searching for Marzin (Joe Cole), the man who killed Jess' daughter, certain that he will find him in the prison system somewhere. When he finally does, the three are presented with a dilemma- reopen old wounds or let the past be the past? The results will shock you (not really- you can see this one coming from a mile away).
Secret in Their Eyes had quite a bit of potential as a movie. The concept is interesting and topical, tackling the ideas of domestic terrorism and the measures that are used to defeat those who hope to hurt us, in addition to the oft-used motifs of obsession and morality. Led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, the actors are dynamic and well-respected, and the trailer promised that they would get some juicy material to work with. And finally, it's set in Los Angeles, which has been the setting for many a great crime thrillers over the years.
Secret in Their Eyes fails on all three fronts, but there's one massive reason that it falls completely flat. This film is one of the most thematically muddled films in the history of thematically muddled films. Director and screenwriter Billy Ray clearly has no idea what he wants to say or how he wants to say it, and from the first scene, that is explicitly, undoubtedly clear. It really feels at times like Ray and company threw some stuff together without truly sitting down to think about how it affected the movie as a whole. "Terrorism? Government corruption? People love that stuff! Let's throw it into an otherwise incredibly intense and personal revenge drama!" There are these weird moments that deal with the questionable motives of FBI leader Martin Morales (Alfred Molina) and even some of his workers. But for other large chunks of the film, the film clearly deals with the dangers of obsession and the morality of revenge. So which theme does Ray want us to focus on? I really don't know.
The pacing is also all wrong from start to finish. Chopping in and out between the interconnected stories in 2002 and 2015, this style of cutting hurts the focus of the film and detracts from the thematic and dramatic qualities of the story. The flashback style alternates between absurdly cheesy and completely confusing. Let's discuss this for a minute- between the 13 years in the movie, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Ray looks like he has barely aged a day. The only difference is some slight shades of gray in his hair. There were honestly some times where I thought a scene that took place in 2002 was occurring in the present day and vice versa. This was a subtle thing, but it took me out of the movie and affected the film in more ways that you would imagine.
Acting talent is continually wasted and even though Ejiofor is still great, there's simply nothing for him to work with here. He's playing in the sandbox of a weekend TV episode of Law & Order and not even a talented actor like Ejiofor can do much there. The one thing that the trailers for this film seemed to promise was a virtuoso, intense performance from Julia Roberts. Well, I'm here to tell you that you'll be sorely disappointed. Roberts is subdued and not given much to do at all. Each of her strongest moments pops up in the trailer and when you do get to the twist with her character, Roberts still doesn't bring the necessary amount of insanity to the role. And finally, in an odd turn of events, Kidman is pretty good here. She has one absolutely brilliant scene with Ejiofor and Joe Cole, and there are some more interesting nuances with her and Ray.
I honestly think that one of the biggest sins that Secret in Their Eyes commits is wasting the Los Angeles setting. I'm a huge fan of Los Angeles-set crime thrillers- there's something so pure and terrifying about putting your seedy gangster drama smack in the middle of the City of Angels. Films like Mulholland Drive, Nightcrawler and L.A. Confidential have exploited this location to create dreamlike masterpieces. Secret in Their Eyes does nothing with it. Not a single thing. If they hadn't put up the little "Los Angeles" title card, I probably wouldn't have known that the movie was set in the city, which was endlessly frustrating.
The ultimate problem with Secret in Their Eyes is that this movie has been done before, and it has been done in better ways. And no, I'm not talking about the Argentinean original from 2009. I'm talking about Prisoners, the harrowing and haunting Hugh Jackman/Jake Gyllenhaal masterpiece that delves into the deep corners of parenthood and the dangerous corners of obsession. Secret in Their Eyes tries to do something similar, but it ends up feeling flimsy in comparison- it doesn't dive as deep, it doesn't get as seedy, it simply doesn't go for it. Ejiofor and Kidman carry the movie to a certain point, but there's not much to recommend here. It's a movie that vanishes from your mind pretty much immediately and with so many great options in theaters, there's no reason to end up in the theater playing Secret in Their Eyes.
THE FINAL GRADE: D+ (4.7/10)
Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Screen Rant, Joblo