Google The Secret in Their Eyes and, unsurprisingly, you’ll find the film’s official site as the first result. It comes accompanied by a tagline that sounds a little pleading: “Don’t miss the year’s best cast.” It’s not a wild claim. A remake of Juan José Campanella’s widely acclaimed 2009 film of the same name — which beat out both The White Ribbon and A Prophet to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for that year — The Secret in Their Eyes stars Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Nicole Kidman. But wait! There’s more: Alfred Molina and Dean Norris round out the supporting characters. The year’s best cast? Sure. Let’s let The Secret in Their Eyes have that claim. The film needs something to brag about.
The problem with The Secret in Their Eyes is that it strands the cast in a poky narrative that walks up to the edge of saying something without committing. A Los Angeles-set mystery that unfolds across two timelines — the present day and 2002 — the film’s never awful, but it’s rarely gripping. As a mystery, it’s light on suspense. As a psychological study, it feels half-baked. And as a political statement, it feels halfhearted. Where Campanella’s original unfolded against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War of the ’70s and ’80s, the flashback portions of the remake take place as America adjusts to the new normal following 9/11. In one shot, police cars go to a crime scene in the background as a crew mounts surveillance cameras on a Los Angeles street in the foreground. It’s a reminder of how much things have changed, and how quickly that change happens. It’s also one of the few times the remake — written and directed by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) — successfully ties its story of violence and revenge to a larger theme, and then only for a moment.
As the film opens in 2015, Ray Kasten (Ejiofor) has returned to Los Angeles, where he was once stationed as part of the FBI’s counter-terrorism program. He soon reunites with Claire Sloan (Kidman), a new arrival when they met, now the city’s district attorney. From their first moment together, it’s clear Kasten still has feelings for Sloan, more than a decade since they parted ways. The film dwells on this sub-plot more than it needs to, making the occasional loose connection to Kasten’s borderline-obsessive — if not entirely unwelcome — interest in Sloan and the psycho killer responsible for the film’s central crime. It’s an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t really go anywhere. The film has a lot of those.
About that central crime: It involves the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl, the daughter of Kasten’s friend and fellow investigator Jess Cobb (Roberts), in 2002. In the film’s best, most-disturbing scene, Cobb’s seen-it-all demeanor melts as she discovers that her latest case has brought her to her own daughter’s body, abandoned and covered in bleach in a dumpster behind a mosque. It’s an awful, devastatingly played moment that captures what it looks like when one person’s world falls apart. If the film can claim the year’s best cast, it’s only Roberts who gives a truly memorable performance. Kidman remains too distant, and Ejiofor, though fine, occasionally seems to be overcompensating for Ray’s low-end-of-the-metronome pacing by blustering his way through the more dramatic scenes. But Roberts is remarkable here, letting the Erin Brockovich bite of the scenes set before the murder give way to a haunted, more-dead-than-alive performance of those set after it.
Roberts hasn’t really starred in a movie since the ill-fated Larry Crowne in 2011, doing supporting work in August, Osage County and Mirror, Mirror. In 2015, it’s not immediately apparent what audiences want from her. They turned out for Eat Pray Love in 2010, but rejected the first-rate Duplicity, which featured her in full movie star mode opposite Clive Owen, the previous year. Here, she proves herself able to move way outside her comfort zone, playing an unglamorous woman who loses the light in her eyes. It’s a fine, unexpected performance stranded in the middle of a not-quite-there movie that, most likely, audiences won’t turn out for, either. But it bodes well for the future.