Every Secret Thing is a trim, grippingly moody thriller. Director Amy Berg favors the sort of crime-movie stylization in which characters forever speak of buried mysteries in throaty, tearful whispers against backdrops that abound in seemingly every shade of gray under the rainbow of broken dreams. The aesthetic is monotonous and impersonal, but Berg, unlike the similarly obsessive filmmaker Atom Egoyan (the two even have a subject in common, having each made a film about the West Memphis Three), has the dramatic instinct to keep the scenes moving. Berg doesn’t dawdle, and the violence consequently attains stature as a series of implicatively, fleetingly horrible nightmares, keeping one involved in the unfolding of a narrative that doesn’t ultimately benefit from much scrutiny. Every Secret Thing has a problem, though, that’s familiar to competently made, sporadically involving crime procedurals: It’s just good enough to inspire wishes that it were better.
Like most stories concerned with the hydra-esque relationship between crimes of the past and the present, Every Secret Thing is about the nature of grudges and how they warp their bearers. Seven years ago, little girls Alice Manning (Brynne Norquist) and Ronnie Fuller (Eva Grace Kellner) were convicted of killing a biracial baby and sent to juvenile detention for it. Now legally adults, they’re out and trying to resume their lives. Alice (now Danielle Macdonald) has grown up to be extraordinarily overweight, wandering the town with a huge soda perpetually in hand under the pretense of looking for work, spiritually lost and clearly searching for resolution/absolution. Ronnie (now Dakota Fanning) works at a bagel shop, casually weathering the indignities of the service industry, aware that Alice has taken to spying on her. Soon, a three-year-old biracial girl is kidnapped, and Alice and Ronnie are suspected to be involved, leading to an investigation that casts a particularly harsh and revealing light on Alice’s relationship with her slim, chic schoolteacher mother, Helen (Diane Lane), who clearly loathes her.
The audience won’t be able to stand Alice either, and the film’s triggering of this reaction is its most distinctive touch. It’s difficult to tell whether Macdonald is superb at playing surly inexpressiveness or if she’s merely an inexpressive actor—though her performance is daringly un-ingratiating either way, which serves to instructively challenge and subsequently deepen the viewer’s empathy with a bitter young woman who’s clearly tortured whether or not she had anything to do with the new kidnapping. The interrogation scenes, between Alice and a detective played by Elizabeth Banks, explore the social disadvantages of a fat woman with a stark bluntness that’s unheard of in a popular cinema that renders cuddly goofballs of the overweight for our comfortable, unquestioned delectation.
These moments, along with a few crisp, intense scenes that allude to the obvious racial tension that’s stirred up by interracial violations, threaten to steer Every Secret Thing into dramatically wrenching terrain, but Berg and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener never entirely commit to mining the characters’ internal emotional temperatures. Instead, the filmmakers foreground the unsurprising, literal-minded twin-mystery narratives, which culminate in a regrettably pulpy twist that re-contextualizes a protagonist as an arch supervillain who’s reminiscent of the master of lies played by Edward Norton in Primal Fear. Compared to Alice’s unnervingly pure expression of self-loathing, a contemporary Moriarty is kid’s stuff.