Perhaps no actor better embodies a woman’s vengeful thirst against violent, misogynistic men than Noomi Rapace, who has gravitated to such roles ever since she was Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In Yuval Adler’s The Secrets We Keep, she finds herself on familiar ground, yet in an unfamiliar setting, that of a postwar America still reeling from WWII. It’s a thriller that pairs her up with fellow Swede, Joel Kinnaman, showing similar antagonistic chemistry as they did in Child 44 just five years ago.
Despite the title, The Secrets We Keep is about more than what is withheld from the people we are closest to. It is, ultimately, about the reliability of memory, and whether there can be redemption for those who commit the most heinous of acts. Rapace plays Maja, a Romanian who has survived unimaginable cruelty during WWII and has built a new life with her husband Lewis (Chris Messina, back in mediocre spouse mode after a psychotic Birds of Prey detour), an American who doesn’t mind that his wife wears the pants in the family. As her husband’s assistant at the clinic, she has no problem putting him in his place. Early on, she chastises her husband for extending a dinner invitation to an injured soldier who clearly did not want their charity. Maja saw it as an embarrassing, humiliating act of charity.
Maja’s cold exterior is partly due to her background, but also the dark memories she hides even from Lewis. That side of herself comes rushing to the forefront when a new neighbor, Thomas (Kinnaman) resembles the Nazi who raped her and executed her sister. The film is at its tightest right now, as Maja stealthily stalks the man, before luring him into a trap so she can assault and kidnap him. Ironically, Maja uses deception, feigning innocence to play on Thomas’ willingness to be of service.
That idea, of nobody being quite what they seem, becomes a prevailing theme after Maja assaults then kidnaps Thomas, tying him up to be tortured in the family basement. A scene earlier in the film shows that Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is playing at the local theater, a film of mistaken identity and presumed guilt. How reliable is Maja’s memory? Lewis, brought unwillingly into her murder (?) plot, has to grapple with this new woman in front of him, one scarred by tragedy and with an apparent willingness to kill. Certainly, he’ll have to reconsider her future employment.
The film takes some tentative steps into gore when Maya begins to interrogate Thomas, who insists he’s a Swiss man named Karl. But Adler never fully enters that world, choosing to tread cautiously when indulging in the violence would have done more to heighten the intensity and the stakes. Considering the number of lies and mysteries to be unearthed, this should be far more complex than it turns out to be.
The interactions between Maja and Lewis never quite click, and perhaps that is an intentional construct to show the couple’s growing disconnect. In particular, an argument over when they can torture their captive is unintentionally hilarious for its lack of subtlety compared to the rest of the film. A much better, more meaningful rapport is forged between Maja and her target, even as he continually breaks free from his bondage (implausibly so) only to be recaptured and tortured further. As he attempts to convince Maja of his truth, she begins to question her own memory of the ordeal. Also excellent are her conversations with Thomas’ distraught wife, Rachel (an excellent Amy Seimetz), who she befriends in order to glean information. While their encounters are few, multiple layers spring forth. On the surface there’s the sight of the woman whose husband has vanished, growing chummy with the woman who is holding him captive. Beyond that, there’s Maja keeping another side of herself shielded from view, and the recognition that someone like Rachel, who is left alone to care for the kids, has few options left for her. If her husband does not return, what is left? Maja must tangle with that consideration, as well. For some, and Maja would be one, intimacy can be a weakness, and she is anything but weak. But what is the cost of always being so closed off, just to present oneself as strong?
The problem with a film like The Secrets We Keep is that it becomes considerably less interesting as the veil of mystery is pushed aside. While not always as taut as the film could be, the efforts of Rapace, Kinnaman (who really does spend most of the movie tied to a chair), and Seimetz reveal many sides to the long-lasting impact of trauma, and what we choose to lock away deep down inside.