Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three characters burdened by the past

A strong cast should have elevated Secret in Their Eyes, but the movie turns out to be a mostly drab police procedural.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts.

Tell me that those names don't spark interest. Considering the acting power on display in the new thriller, Secret in Their Eyes, you'd expect the movie to strike a mother-load of dramatic pay dirt. Instead, this drably realized and often murky police procedural yields only medium-grade helpings of suspense.

Secret revolves around a Los Angeles-based, anti-terrorism unit in which we find three of the movie's principal characters.

Julia Roberts plays Jess, a team member who suffers a terrible blow when her daughter is raped and murdered, her body unceremoniously tossed into a dumpster.

Joining Jess in what appears to be a delayed quest for justice are Ray, a former FBI agent played by Ejiofor, and Claire, an attorney portrayed by Kidman.

Director Billy Ray wrote the screenplay, which is a loose remake of the 2009 Oscar winning Argentine feature of the same name. That movie played out in the aftermath of Argentina's "Dirty War," a period when dissidents were "disappeared" by a military junta and its henchmen.

This one deals with the kind of post 9/11 jitters in which concerns about terrorism sometimes trump the pursuit of individual justice.

Alternating between the present and 2002, the movie's skittering structure adds unnecessary murkiness to an already complicated plot.

Equally problematic, the characters don't seem richly enough observed for the movie's trio of headliners.

Kidman plays a tightly wound Harvard Law School graduate who eventually becomes Los Angeles DA.

Sans make-up, sporting bangs and a ghastly parlor, a deglamorized Roberts plays Jess, a grief stricken woman who still manages to soldier on with her police duties.

Thirteen years after the murder of Jess' daughter, Ejiofor's Ray -- now out of the FBI -- returns to LA believing that he has located the murderer, a felon who recently has been released from prison. Ray wants to reopen the case.

Most of the movie focuses on Ejiofor's angry, regretful character, a man who nurses a long-standing (and mostly undeveloped) crush on Kidman's Claire. Again and again, other characters tell him, she's out of his league. She's Harvard; he's community college.

We get a glimpse of what Kidman might have delivered in a scene in which she conducts an interrogation. As a grieving mother, Roberts too often is pushed to the film's periphery.

The supporting cast has little room to maneuver, but the always terrific Alfred Molina registers strongly as a DA with an agenda.

If you like surprise twists, you may be satisfied by this downbeat thriller, but taken as a whole, Secret qualifies as a disappointing use of prime acting talent.

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