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.
"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.