Film Review: Secret in Their Eyes

Inevitable Hollywood remake starring Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman pales next to 2009 Spanish-language original

Secret in Their Eyes


Written and directed by Billy Ray. Starring Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Lyndon Smith, Joe Cole, Mark Famiglietti, Zoe Graham, Don Harvey, Ross Partridge, Noel Gugliemi, Michael Kelly.

In the Oscar-winning 2009 Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes, a police detective spends over a decade tracking down leads in an attempt to find the person behind an unsolved rape and murder, based off little more than a hunch.  

I was never a big fan of the police work or storytelling in the movie, but the level of craft in the filmmaking was undeniable. The movie’s showstopping scene, a single-shot take that encompasses a five-minute chase at a crowded football game, was a how-did-they-do-that wowzer and one of the most memorable cinema sequences of the past decade.

Given the thriller-movie template, a Hollywood remake was inevitable; even Oldboy got a translation. So six years later, here’s a familiar rundown of the events from writer-director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts in the leading roles.

And while it’s a decently-made thing in most regards, the story wasn’t all that great to begin with, Ray’s script makes some strange choices that add little of substance, and the whole movie just seems to simmer on low-burn for the duration.

And most importantly: this version is completely missing the filmmaking craft that made the original film so special. It’s a dud, through and through.

In the update of that showstopping scene, for example – which is now set at a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game – Ray handles the action in straightforward and lackluster fashion, making no attempt to match either the passion or technical skill of the original. What was once so memorable has here become an thriller-movie afterthought.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is Ray, an ex-FBI agent and current security guard for the New York Mets who has spent the past thirteen years searching for the rapist and murderer, whom he locates in a police photo half a minute into the movie.

The victim in that crime is no longer a random case that stuck with the lawman: here, it’s the daughter of Ray’s former partner, Jess (Julia Roberts). At the time of the murder – in post 9/11 L.A. – Ray and Jess were working for the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit and tracking the goings-on at a local mosque, which happened to be right next to the bunker where the body is found.

You might imagine that the Jess should be the lead in the movie: she’s an FBI agent, and it’s her daughter who is murdered. But instead, it’s a solo Ray that tackles the burden of solving the murder, which he connects to a single photograph from the FBI picnic that features a creepy-looking kid ogling the future victim.

It’s a problem I had with the original film too: how can he be so sure about this party’s guilt from nothing but a glance in an old photograph? Ah, it’s the titular secret in the eyes. Got it.

Half of Secret in Their Eyes charts the events of 2002, as Ray tries to both locate the suspect and unravel his connection to the FBI, and the other half takes place 13 years later, when Ray goes back to L.A. to report his findings to Jess and district attorney/friend Claire (Nicole Kidman) and hopefully begin his search anew.

The film focuses on the 9/11 anti-terrorism aspect, and a bizarre subplot includes characters who actively sabotage the murder investigation because it might hinder their terrorism case. These are the real bad guys in the movie, but completely forgotten by the end, because they aren’t part of the original film.

Here’s one thing that does work in this version: the unrequited romantic subplot between the Ray and Claire characters. The scenes between Kidman and Ejiofor, who share a genuine nervous tension, are the best in the movie, carefully and subtly noted in key parts of Ray’s screenplay. I’d even say this storyline works better here than in the original.

In every other regard, however, 2015’s English-language rehash of Secret in Their Eyes fails to come close to matching the original. If you absolutely, positively cannot be bothered to watch a foreign-language movie, I suppose this version is a bland-but-satisfactory thriller. Everyone else is advised to check out the original instead. 

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