The difficulty in judging any remake is separating it from the original. Sometimes this can be pretty easy, but when the source is an Oscar winner like Juan Jose Campanella's moody and excellent The Secret In Their Eyes, it can be especially tough. To put into perspective the high regard there is for that Argentinian film, it defeated The White Ribbon and A Prophet in the Best Foreign Language category, two films that have not diminished in standing in the years since. So Billy Ray's American remake, simply titled Secret In Their Eyes perhaps to avoid confusing the audience that probably has no idea it's a remake, has very tough shoes to fill.
While it doesn't quite pack the emotional or political heft of the original, Secret In Their Eyes isn't just another meaningless redo. Despite a few hokey twists, it works as an efficient, melancholic crime procedural and examination of grief and loss. Expertly navigating between the past and the present, the film mostly takes place in Los Angeles in the months following the 9/11 attacks. Back then it was expected that the west coast was the next likely target for terrorists, and the country was at high alert. It also opened up a pervasive "ends justifying the means" approach to national security, and into this world enters Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an FBI agent on the counter-terrorism task force. He's been assigned to keep tabs on a nearby mosque that could be a terrorist hot spot, but his eyes are focused more on Claire (Nicole Kidman), the District Attorney he shares an instant connection with. He works alongside his best friend, Jess (Julia Roberts), who never misses an opportunity to needle him about his workplace crush.
Ray, an expert scribe who wrote and directed the excellent Shattered Glass, Breach and penned The Hunger Games, focuses on the connection between these three people and the little details in their lives. That's what makes it so heart-breaking when a murdered girl discovered near the mosque turns out to be Jess' daughter. The look of anguish on Ray's face when he makes the discovery and realizes he must break it to his friend. The look of unimaginable pain and loss on her face upon seeing her dead girl, the "thing that makes me me" she says, is indescribable. Years later as Ray returns to help close the unsolved murder case, the guilt and despair weighing on all of them is never far away.
Ray's pursuit of the alleged killer, an informant he's come to know as Marzin, is complicated by an array of insiders, corrupt cops, and ambitious politicians each with their own agendas. But the same can be said of Ray, Jess, and Claire who each carry reasons for wanting, or not wanting, to see the case solved. That demands the audience pay the utmost attention to every detail, especially as time jumps back and forth between the past and present. The transition is always seamless, with it always clear how decisions made in the past continue to have an impact. The character details and much of the plot remains untouched, but what's missing is the gripping edge-of-your-seat tension, perhaps because Ray is more attuned to screenwriting than visual flair. This is never more obvious than in his limp recreation of the unforgettable stadium chase scene.
Naturally, it's tough to find fault in the three lead stars, but supporting players like Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, and Alfred Molina shouldn't be overlooked. Kidman and Ejiofor have terrific sexual chemistry, important because much of the film deals with their unrequited passion. They may have gone a little overboard in trying to make Roberts look normal. Decked out in the drabbest outfits they could find from the nearby Goodwill, the heavy-handed depiction of Jess telegraphs what should have been a meaningful, surprising reveal. Secret In Their Eyes isn't going to make anyone forget the original, but it's possible to have an appreciation for both without diminishing either.
Rating: 3 out of 5