Reviews

Secret Window (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

'Johnny's look,' says director David Koepp, 'mostly came from Johnny'.


Secret Window

Director: David Koepp
Cast: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Charles S. Dutton, Timothy Hutton, Len Cariou, Gillian Ferrabee
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2004-06-22
I guess I just really am drawn to guy-in-the-house-going-crazy movies... I like bad things happening right in your living space.
-- David Koepp, "Secret Window: From Book To Screen"

I'm about done fussin' with you.
-- Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp), Secret Window

"I didn't want to hear anything anybody said, because I feel like it's all stuff we've heard a million times, and it also seemed way too personal and I wanted to get out of that room, instead of hearing everyone screaming recriminations at each other." Writer-director David Koepp introduces his thinking about Secret Window's first scene, during which shooting he surprised the actors with excess sound and commotion in order to solicit properly horrified responses. As Maria Bello says, "It was so real, and we got so freaked out, you couldn't help but react to that." Adds Koepp, "I think they were quite startled."

This scene is easily one of the most effective in Secret Window, when novelist Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) not only discovers his wife Amy (Bello) in a motel bed with another man Ted (Timothy Hutton), but breaks into their room and roars -- quite awfully -- at the understandably distressed lovers. Koepp describes his process for Columbia's DVD release, in three featurettes -- "From Book To Film," "A Look Through It," and "Secrets Revealed" -- and, informatively if somewhat repetitively, in the commentary track (which Koepp refers to as "additional thoughts"). (The DVD also includes four deleted scenes, one being an extended, more graphic ending to the film.)

Mort first appears, pre-motel assault, in his car (staring into the camera mounted on the hood). His voice-over is ominous, at once immediate and abstract: "Turn around. Turn the car around and get the hell out of here, right now." He does what he tells himself to do, 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 the couple -- all three parties flailing, loud, livid.

The scene cuts to "six months later," the camera creeping in a (secret) window to find Mort asleep, disheveled, 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 ("Johnny's look," says Koepp, "mostly came from Johnny." This as we see his blond-streaked hair, ratty bathrobe, and glasses, his face set as he chomps on chips). 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 King novella, 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 (this despite Koepp's best efforts to introduce the surprise slowly -- listening to his commentary makes you appreciate these efforts, even if the film doesn't work out as well as it might have).

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. "Johnny's just one of our most gifted actors, period. He's a font of ideas," observes Koepp. "What I like about his ideas is you're not sure if he's kidding at first, because they're off the wall. But then they make perfect sense... He's got a marvelous twisted brain." Playing a mystery writer who finds himself unable to write, Depp is both enigmatic and precise, confused and driven.

Mort has followed up his ill-planned assault on Amy and Ted 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 blind 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 increasing aggression and portentous 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 David Byrne: "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 and even choking 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. And he is full of surprises (as Koepp puts it, "It's a wonderful thing in a movie to wonder what's going on. Until it's a terrible thing"). Depp keeps that moment of knowing at bay about as long as anyone could. 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 psycho, as well as a plagiarist. That said, he's an excessively and entertainingly imaginative, his wildly fluctuating subjective state filtered through dreams, mirror shots, and perverse exchanges with Shooter.

Mort's efforts to live down his past make for an intriguing predicament, as artists often fret they will be "found out," as fakes of some sort. Even more interesting is the difficulty of plagiarizing from oneself, surely a subject with which King has some experience, as Secret Window makes quite obvious.

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Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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