Remaking a movie from another language requires more than just translating the dialogue. When done right, a complex series of subtle changes must take place to transplant the story across cultures.
“Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the 2009 Argentinian film of the same (sans definite article), moves an intriguing thriller from 1970s Buenos Aires to 2000s Los Angeles. Naturally, that country’s “Dirty War” of state terrorism, which provides the setting for the original film, must be changed as America has no such equivalent. The closest equivalent that writer/director Billy Ray finds? Post-9/11 terrorism.
Juan José Campanella’s film dealt with tragedies that his country was still reluctant to acknowledge. Billy Ray milks the nation’s public anguish of this millennia for lazy dramatic stakes. Drawing parallels between the two changes the very nature of the story from a politically-tinged thriller to something that amounts to little more than a feature-length episode of a serialized crime drama.
Not even the talented cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts can elevate the material back to the level of its Oscar-winning source. Ray’s script, which cuts between a murder in 2002 and its continuing aftermath in 2015, intertwines its threads to such clunky effect that “Secret in Their Eyes” never has a chance to gain any momentum. He favors big, explosive moments from his actors as opposed to giving them rich, internal characters to work with on the page.
We know from films like “12 Years a Slave” that Ejiofor is capable of communicating so much with just his eyes, yet his tortured protagonist Ray from “Secret in Their Eyes” never gets the chance to draw us into his pain. He’s a counterterrorism agent with a crush on one colleague, Nicole Kidman’s Claire, and a friendly working relationship with another, Julia Roberts’ Jess. When a routine check on a body turns out to be Jess’ daughter, the boundaries between protecting the country and pursuing justice get rather murky.
The occasional ethical question about the merits of retribution gets raised here and there, but it’s usually forgone for yet another opportunity to watch Roberts hysterically contort her face. C+ /