To say that the American remake of the Oscar-winning Argentine movie Secret in Their Eyes is suddenly and sadly timely in the wake of the Parisian terror attacks and accompanying fresh wave of cultural fearmongering is to give the movie entirely too much credit, and to simultaneously deny humanity’s grander ongoing tragedy. Adapted by Captain Phillips scribe Billy Ray, the remake transposes the 2009 film’s allusions to Argentina’s Dirty War into yet another moody, pallid examination of the true cost of America’s War on Terror. Naturally, the true cost is measured in terms of how it affects Americans—this time, focusing on the ones in positions of power.
Volleying across a 13-year time span, the film begins in the present with F.B.I. counterterrorism agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) breathlessly returning to Los Angeles, bringing to his partner, Jess (Julia Roberts), and deputy district attorney, Claire (Nicole Kidman), information he believes will solve a case that’s been haunting all three since the months immediately following the 9/11 attacks. In those days, the body of Jess’s daughter had been found in a dumpster near a prominent and closely monitored mosque. Despite warnings from then-D.A. Morales (Alfred Molina) not to let the case overtake his primary directive (namely, preventing further assaults on the homeland), Ray let his personal investment in the girl’s murder absorb him. Given Ejiofor’s unwavering commitment to a role that otherwise fails to transcend cliché, the film initially seems to be on solid, if not innovative, footing.
The further Ray dug into the case in 2002, the dirtier his hands got, ultimately discovering that even when he nabbed an oily teen lizard he was convinced was the perpetrator, there was no way he’d ever get him to stand trial. The reason? He was Homeland Security’s inside man sitting on the potentially largest sleeper cell of terrorists in the country, or so Morales and his ilk believed. The not-even-veiled “freedom isn’t free” insinuation that leaving the murder of Jess’s daughter “unsolved” was institutionally acceptable collateral damage left Ray, Claire, and Jess disillusioned. By the time the action picks up again in 2015, at least two of them are well-nigh hollowed.
Ray, the director, unfurls the parallel time structure with the same flat, procedural monotony applied by Juan José Campanella to the original film, albeit with far less willingness to wallow in lurid details. The mystery doesn’t stem from whodunit (which even at its basest moments was true of Denis Villeneuve’s risible but vascular Prisoners), and the tension isn’t powered by the characters’ soul crises, but rather the writer’s premeditated withholding of details that, more often than not, prove immaterial to the fundamental point. (For a laughable amount of time, the film dances around whatever trauma caused Ray’s loyal sidekick to develop a limp he didn’t have in 2002.) It’s not enough that time evidently doesn’t heal all wounds, it also makes everyone’s lives nothing but the blank spots in fate’s big book of Mad Libs.
So much investment is put in the roundelay of plot reveals that when the big third-act twist comes, it arrives shortchanged of its intended political implications. (Spoilers herein.) The eye-rolling disclosure that one of the main characters has been taking the law into their own hands since the end of the events depicted via flashback is clearly intended to symbolically reflect the ultimate outcome of post-9/11 foreign policy, in “the true enemies are ourselves” fashion. A less “love child of Agatha Christie and Dick Wolf” type of movie might have opened up the door for more empathy for those who do wrong, which would’ve in turn complicated and shaded the message, rather than confirmed the film’s grim march toward a case closed.