Reviews

'Secret in Their Eyes' Brings on Reflections of Loss After 9/11

Billy Ray's movie uses the transition of post-9/11 fears into xenophobia and forever war as backdrop, but it focuses most intently on the distractions of a hideous murder case.


Secret in Their Eyes

Director: Billy Ray
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Alfred Molina
Rated: PG-13
Studio: STX Entertainment
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-11-20 (General release)
UK date: 2016-03-04 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"This is about you." Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears unbearably sad as he gazes into the eyes of his dear friend Jess (Julia Roberts). As intimate as the moment might seem, it's also profoundly unspecific, a phrase that applies to every relationship and every plot turn in Secret in Their Eyes. Every gesture, glance, and guess in the movie has to do with a you, an object of desire, a source of regret. Every moment illustrates the overriding theme, which is to say, obsession.

On its face, obsession seems extreme. Here, it's also mundane, and not in a good way. You might imagine a meditation on obsession that rethinks the ways that love and loss become knotted, that yearning for another (a you) becomes self-definition, an endless focus on a not so interesting "I". This film gives its melodrama a broader framework, too, making Ray and Jess former members of an anti-terrorism task force, partners in LA just after 9/11 whose devotion to stopping another attack is turned inside out by a particular (and particularly contrived) crime: the rape and murder of Jess' daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham).

Ray's introduced at his current job, in 2015, security chief for the Mets. It's after hours, and he's still at the office overlooking Citi Field, his gaze fixed on his computer monitor as he flips through page after page of mug shots, looking for the one, the killer who got away. That he's been doing this for 13 years confirms his obsession. He looks for Marzin (Joe Cole), the killer identified back in 2001, who got away, scanning images that appears as reflections of the screen in his glasses and his face in the screen. Intercut with these reflections are grueling, too-close abstractions of the crime, specifically, pictures of Carolyn's terror and pain.

It's an odd set of shots, if you think about it, Ray's version of what her experience might have possibly been like. The film presses ahead with this notion, that Ray's driven by what he can't know. His pursuit leads him back to LA, where he announces his finding to Jess and also, their former colleague, the ambitious attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman). The women look at him like he's crazy, obsessed, but the trick here is that they are, too; Jess with her own still throbbing loss and Claire with… wait for it… Ray.

Of course, he's obsessed with Claire, too, a relationship never quite realized but imagined, a lot. While Claire has been married to another man all these years, Ray has done something like a manly thing, turning his obsession into an after-hours job, pursuing the killer he remembers and misremembers. In this, Billy Ray's adaptation follows its source material, Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), winner of 2009's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Both films cut back and forth in time to show how multiple obsessions begin and don't end (Campanella's film's past is set in 1974 Argentina, its present in 2009). That both films ponder the correspondences between love and revenge, their similar myopia and selfishness, is to their credit. That neither movie gets out from under the architecture of sentimental excess, coincidence, and overstatement is not.

Ray's movie uses the transition of post-9/11 fears into xenophobia and forever war as backdrop (in the 2001 scenes, Ray walks past street vendors hawking duct tape and you hear George Bush on background televisions). But it focuses most intently on the distractions of sex and violence introduced by that initial, vividly imagined rape scene. Marzin is a monster, exemplified in the 2001 scenes by a comic book he authors (featuring a muscular monster who attacks busty women, a maybe-clue that intensifies Ray's certainty as well as his obsession) and his own obsessions with horse races and baseball.

If these bits of characterization are thematically weak, they provide for a few set-pieces, at a sports bar in LA, at the Santa Anita racetrack, and at Dodger Stadium, locations where Ray and Jess and their loyal fellow former agent, Bumpy (Dean Norris), can fret over what they haven't done and what they will do, no matter the costs. The determination to get the killer is granted further emotional baggage by a frankly terrible scene set in the past. When Claire intervenes in Ray's interrogation of the suspect, she reveals her manipulative skills (standard for a prosecutor, you'd guess), goading the irrepressibly cocky Mazin to confess because, well, he can't stand being told his penis is small.

Ugly and overwrought, this performance by both Claire and her prey unfolds not only for you, but also for your surrogate viewer, Ray. Framed low and tightly, his face reveals a short range of reactions, from worry to awe to full-on rage, when the monster Marzin emerges. It's possible to see Ray reflected in the scene before him, though the sorrow that also washes over his face, in recognizing the loss of his most cherished object, less Claire per se than his dream of her, impossible and harrowing.

For a moment, Secret in Their Eyes leans toward revelation, in a following scene where Claire, Ray, and Marzin appear in an elevator with mirrored walls. It's a crazy, extravagant moment, the film's own excess. As you look over multiple images of each, their faces barely turn away from and toward one another, each alone in their own projections on to the others. And then, Jess enters, and this surreal moment expands beyond words. A long, frightening look at Julia Roberts' face, ghastly pale and gaunt, provides a portrait of loss that can't end.

4


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.