Secrets of Eden opens on Stephen Drew (John Stamos) at the wheel of his car. He’s a well-liked pastor in small-town Vermont, but as we hear in a fatuous voiceover, appearances are deceptive.
This unchallenging adaptation of Chris Bohjalian’s bestseller wishes it could be American Beauty. Or maybe Desperate Housewives. Right away, a series of crime-scene photos reveal the grisly crime at the movie’s center, an apparent murder-suicide by a young couple named the Haywards. It’s not long before Drew insinuates himself into the investigation, and so becomes an object of suspicion, pursued by tenacious assistant DA Catherine Benincasa (Anna Gunn) when it turns out that George Hayward (Graham Abbey) didn’t commit suicide after all.
As Catherine delves into the dead couple’s dysfunctional marriage, George, “every woman’s dream,” is revealed as a bully with an unpredictable temper who abused his wife Alice (Sonya Salomaa) and adored his teenage daughter Katie (Samantha Munro). The film treats such complications superficially, however, in a way that makes the family members into tabloid-ready types rather than individuals.
This sensationalism begins with the flashbacks tracing Alice’s struggles to escape her husband, narrated via her journal. Montages show us that shortly before her murder, she had embarked on a journey of spiritual discovery that included Drew’s touchy-feely brand of Christianity. Salomaa’s affecting performance makes Alice both sympathetic and infuriating as she makes a series of ill-advised decisions. Her childlike shuttling between male authority figures in times of crisis made me want to shake her, while the underdeveloped daughter and disapproving best friend (Lisa Ryder) made me want to shake the writer and director.
At the same time, Tawnia McKiernan’s movie shies away from overt criticism of Stephen — except for a clunking bit of dialogue uttered by Benincasa, directly referencing recent abuses of power by clergy. It also fritters away the friendship between Alice and new-age writer Heather LaRoche (Athena Karkanis), the relationship serving only to wedge the glamorous, confident Heather in as a plot device. We know she bucks convention because she wears flowing locks and bangles, and as such, she provides a contrast with Alice, who is demure in long skirts and cardigans (though here she’s not quite the dowdy figure of Bohjalian’s novel). At last she’s rather unfairly dismissed by Stephen (and by Secrets of Eden), when he describes her effect on Alice. That this effect remains unseen is yet another indication of the lazy script. Instead of our seeing what might be happening, Stephen tells us what to think.
We hardly need help in deciphering Stephen. He’s an obvious type, and Stamos –perma-tanned and wearing a seemingly endless collection of fetching, tight shirts — makes us very aware of his superficiality. A glib preacher who trades in weak platitudes, over-intimate with his parishioners, Stephen suggests his motivations in that opening voiceover, though it’s possible that he’s not precisely reliable, or at least confused. He might be a lonely man propelled into the church by a yearning for human contact, or maybe he’s an egotist, determined to abuse his authority. Neither Secrets of Eden nor Stamos’ performance offers a resolution to this question. Instead, the movie appears to champion his choices, even when they’re worrisome. As a consequence, when he says he’s remorseful, we’re unconvinced. Stephen is handsome and outwardly warm, but his insistent self-justification is disturbing.
It’s hard to say if his shallowness informs the movie or vice versa. Maybe it’s both. When the identity of the murderer becomes clear, Secrets of Eden hurries toward an unsatisfying happy ending, essentially forgetting Benincasa. It’s actually surprising how little time the film devotes to her. We see that she’s discomfited by investigating her own community, but don’t find out why.
Equally frustrating is the movie’s lack of attention to the effect of the Haywards’ marriage on their daughter, or even Stephen’s not-quite benign influence on Alice. The movie aims repeatedly for the most obvious emotional response: pity for the wronged woman, anger at her despicable husband, support for Stephen as one half of a melodramatic couple. This makes Secrets of Eden a little prim, never getting much beyond the “Norman Rockwell” image of George and Alice that appears in its first four minutes.