In the languid remake Secret in Their Eyes, the awkward missing “The” in its title poses a more intriguing mystery than anything on the screen.
If you’ve never seen the 2009 original from Argentina, which won the Oscar for best foreign-language picture, do. It’s extremely high-grade pulp, satisfying as a romance and a crime drama. Writer-director Billy Ray’s Americanized redux isn’t a disaster, exactly; it keeps its head down and does its job. But nothing quite gels, or clicks, or makes itself at home in its adopted setting.
The locale is now Los Angeles. In the screenplay’s 2002 sequences, FBI agent Ray Kasten, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and district attorney investigator Jess Cobb, portrayed by Julia Roberts, work on a joint counterterrorism task force with the deputy DA, Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman).
Next door to an L.A. mosque suspected of harboring a terrorist sleeper cell, the body of a young woman turns up in a dumpster. She is Jess’ daughter, and for 13 years Ray, who eventually leaves the FBI for a private-sector job with the Mets, devotes his spare time to solving this murder.
What made the Argentine Secret in Their Eyes so successful? For one thing, the romantic yearning was thick and all-pervasive. In the remake it’s thin and indecisive. Ray has a thing for Claire, and holds the torch for years, walking her to her car each night in the parking garage and generally making Those Eyes at her. But there’s nothing in the romance, and Kidman gives a stiff, strangely affected performance, seemingly designed to cast doubt on her character’s every glance.
Also, there’s the matter of the filmmaking. The Argentine film co-written and directed by Juan Jose Campanella featured some bravura flourishes, notably a fantastic chase around a packed Buenos Aires soccer stadium. In the remake, it’s a pursuit at an L.A. Dodgers game, indifferently staged.
Ray has made two good features, Shattered Glass and Breach, but he can’t get much going in terms of momentum or style this time. The political underpinnings of the remake are meant to evoke the paranoid 9-11 atmosphere (we can certainly relate today, after the recent Paris terrorist attacks). But the use of the mosque (actually a corner of the downtown L.A. public library) and the backdrop of Muslims under suspicion feels slightly off, like so much of the project.
The role of the grieving parent has been gender-switched from the original, effectively, and a fully deglamorized Roberts works up all the right, stricken character details and physical touches: the hollowed-out eyes, the drained-away pallor, the bone-deep spiritual exhaustion.
The best moment in Secret in Their Eyes comes when Jess corrects herself midsentence as she talks about her murdered daughter in the present tense. Kidman aside, the acting’s not the problem with this remake. But the movie is a karaoke routine, not its own convincing song of love and death and the aftermath.
Secret in Their Eyes
Director: Billy Ray
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts
Rated: PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references)
Running time: 111 min.