By: Mark Barber
Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes, an American remake of Juan José Campanella’s 2009 film of the same name, is eerily reminiscent, both thematically and atmospherically, of Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Prisoners, but without going “full-blown Hollywood” in the last act. In other words, Secret in Their Eyes succeeds where Prisoners didn’t, and in ways that highlight the moral ambiguity of its political context. Much like how Prisoners worked as a moderately effective take the suspension of habeas corpus during the Bush era, Secret in Their Eyes is concerned with the intertwining issues of neoconservative retaliation and surveillance – both of which are equally important in the post 9/11 era.
Told through an intermingling of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Secret in Their Eyes follows the unraveling of an team of FBI investigators tasked with surveying a presumed terrorist cell working out of a Los Angeles mosque. When the corpse of one of the FBI agents’ daughter is found a dumpster near the mosque, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) becomes obsessed with the case, placing him at odds not only with the politically motivated and ambitious District Attorney (Alfred Molina), but also with a population still reeling from 9/11.
Saying much more about the narrative would be saying too much. But I will say this: the film challenges our notions of ethics when confronting and retaliating against those who do us harm (and, given recent events in Beirut and Paris, this couldn’t be coming at a better time).
Political context aside, Secret in Their Eyes initially feels like Oscar-bait, but quickly transcends the mediocrity of so many awards films. The cast is uniformly strong; the film is buoyed by strong performances from all cast members, but Julia Roberts stands out among the pack. The emotional intensity she brings to the role is underscored by the painful authenticity of the shock and tragedy her character experiences. Ejiofor, too, brings a verisimilar intensity and determination to Ray.
Sombre in tone and contemplative in execution, Secret in Their Eyes is a mature, critical study of political issues in the post 9/11 climate that functions equally well as an examination of tragedy and trauma.
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Mark Barber: @WorstCinephile