Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) talks to himself. He first appears in Secret Window in his car, his voice-over ominous, both immediate and abstract: “Turn around. Turn the car around and get the hell out of here, right now.” He does it, the camera aimed through the windshield and so tight on his face that you have no idea where he is or what he’s turning from. That is, until he turns again, spinning his vehicle back toward the motel that he was, apparently, trying to leave. Screeching to a stop, he grabs a room key, screeches to the room, and bursts in the door, whereupon he confronts a couple entangled in bed—all three parties flailing, loud, livid.
The scene cuts to “six months later,” and Mort lies passed out on his sofa. Wrapped in a tattered bathrobe, his hair flies about his face even when he’s still, which he is not for long. Comes a knock at the door, and with that, the descent into the sort of madness that afflicts characters—especially writers—in Stephen King stories. Based on a novella, David Koepp’s film manages about an hour’s worth of decent creepiness (helped by Philip Glass’s menacing score, as well as Fred Murphy’s adroitly moody cinematography) before it spins into an ordinary and too-obvious-ahead-of-time finale.
Whatever its visual and soundtrack merits, Secret Window‘s foremost asset is the wondrous Depp. Mort Rainey—so ignominiously named—is alternately twitchy and glib, annoying and charming. A mystery writer, he has followed up his ill-planned assault on his even-then-estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) and her lover Ted (Timothy Hutton) with an extended hole-up at his isolated home in upstate New York. Depressed and unable to write, he sits in front of his laptop and stares at the screen (last word before the blinking cursor: “I”), talking it over with his dog, Chico. “No bad writing,” he says at last, wearily deleting the partial paragraph with a decisive keystroke.
Or maybe it only seems decisive. This non-exchange actually comes after that knock at the door, very decisive indeed, by one John Shooter (John Turturro), a Mississippi farmer come to town to accuse Mort of “stealing” his story. That it happens to be a story about an angry man murdering his estranged wife is hardly coincidence; neither is it an accident that Shooter’s name is Shooter, or that he wants Mort to “change the ending,” that is, make it perfect, the way he originally wrote it. Vaguely ruffled (though it’s hard to tell, as he just looks generally ruffled), Mort insists he has proof of authorship, a 1995 Ellery Queen magazine with his name on the story. John threatens violence (colorfully, as in, “I’ll burn your life and everyone in it like a cornfield in a high wind”) if Mort does not produce said proof within three days.
Baffled by John’s aggression and appearance (especially his rather distinctive hat), Mort is yet inclined to take the charge seriously. This because he has a history of plagiarism (though, as he repeats, “It was just that one time”), and because property—as a concept—has recently become important for him, owing to the breakup with Amy. First, he’s not yet signed divorce papers, and resents that she’s living in their house in Riverdale (spying on her in the driveway with Ted, he quotes Talking Heads: “This is not my beautiful wife”). Second, he resents Ted’s incursion, accusing him of covetousness: “I know how you like my things!”
While Mort appears oddly able to handle Shooter’s recurring visitations (feigning courage, he brandishes a fire poker, and then a shovel), he’s increasingly unable to cope with the specter of Amy and Ted’s romance. She hardly helps, either, calling regularly to wonder about her own decisions and ask for forgiveness: “It’s my fault,” she cries, or again, “Do you think things would have been different if we hadn’t lost the baby?” (As a device to “explain” the couple’s distress, this unexplored tidbit of history is exceedingly trite.) Dreading Amy’s calls, Mort resorts to childish tactics, unplugging the phone or making faces at the receiver when she does get through. At the same time that she’s working her distraught manipulations, Ted makes an unannounced appearance, asking that Mort just sign the papers and get it over with. “I don’t respond well to intimidation,” Mort whines. “It makes me feel icky.”
Secret Window is, above all, about how icky Mort feels. Fortunately, as the plot generated by this subjective state turns increasingly predictable, Johnny Depp turns increasingly inventive and effectively comic. As he’s done in the past (see: Sleepy Hollow, Dead Man, The Astronaut’s Wife), the actor makes the uncanny seem both familiar and startling. His face contorts and his fingers flutter, suggesting depths of feeling—betrayal, desire, delusion—that extend beyond the film’s conventionally bloody machinations.
These grind into gear when, bothered by Shooter’s bullying and unconvinced that the local Sheriff (Len Cariou) has enough on the ball to protect him, Mort calls on a Manhattan detective he’s hired previously, Ken Karsch (Charles S. Dutton). Skeptical regarding the claim and Mort’s sickly pallor, Ken makes his own demand:” “I still need to know the truth. Is he a regular wacko like you’ve had before?” The truth is it’s hard to be a celebrity writer, as King has depicted more than once. It’s also hard to be a wacko, by the way, as well as a plagiarist.
Mort’s efforts to live down his past might make for an intriguing and timely predicament (as Jayson Blair is this very week making the talk show rounds, promoting his book about being a plagiarist at the New York Times). Even more interesting, perhaps, is the difficulty of plagiarizing from oneself, surely a subject with which King has some experience, as Secret Window makes obvious.