Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

US, Spain / 112 minutes / color / IM, Route One, Union Investment, Gran Via, Moot Point, SITE, Willies, Ingenious, STX Dir & Scr: Billy Ray Pr: Mark Johnson, Matt Jackson Story: La Pregunta de sus Ojos (2005; vt The Secret in Their Eyes) by Eduardo Sacheri and the screenplay for El Secreto de sus Ojos (2009; vt The Secret in Their Eyes) by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri Cine: Danny Moder Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Zoe Graham, Alfred Molina, Patrick Davis, Ross Partridge, Eileen Fogarty, Don Harvey.

One of my favorites of all the pieces I watched/rewatched specially for my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir (2013) was the Argentine/Spanish movie El SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (2009; vt The Secret in Their Eyes), directed by Juan José Campanella and based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri. Here’s the guts of the entry I wrote about it:

Around the end of the 20th century, retired federal agent Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is trying to write a novel based on an old, mid-1970s criminal case. For help, he goes to visit Judge Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), who became his boss just beforehand. Benjamín’s novel, and the pair’s discussions as it progresses, are used to frame flashbacks to the primary tale. Young housewife Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) is brutally raped and murdered in her home. A rival investigator, Romano (Mariano Argento), attempts to solve the case quickly by torturing a couple of innocents into making a false confession. Having sorted that out, Benjamín, Irene and their colleague Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) investigate a young man called Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino), who can be seen staring at Liliana in many of the photos in the family album. However, because of procedural blemishes, the case is closed—until, a year later, Benjamín encounters Liliana’s widower, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), and discovers he has been dedicating his life to trying to find Gómez. Touched, Benjamín persuades Irene to reopen the case. They find Gómez and Irene taunts a confession out of him. But the story’s still far from over . . .

This spellbinding piece won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar as well as making almost a clean sweep of the various Argentinean awards, plus many other accolades around the world.

A few years later I came across a copy of the source novel, Eduardo Sacheri’s La Pregunta de sus Ojos (2005; trans John Cullen 2011 as The Secret in Their Eyes), and loved it every bit as much as I had the movie; you can read my notes on the novel here.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ray.

News that there was a Hollywood remake in the pipeline, complete with all-star cast, filled my soul with a creeping, squamous dread (thank you, HPL!)—even if Juan José Campanella, director of the original, was an executive producer on the new version: why the hell remake something that’s already so excellent? It’s not until now that I’ve been able to face watching Secret in Their Eyes.

Nicole Kidman as Claire.

The action has been shifted from Argentina just before and some time after the Dirty War to 2002, among a counterterrorism (CT) taskforce in LA a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Briefly:

Carolyn Cobb (Graham) is raped and murdered, her body dumped next to a mosque that’s being surveiled by CT under suspicion of its sheltering a sleeper cell. Carolyn’s mother Jess (Roberts) is part of the CT team, as are Ray Kasten (Ejiofor) and Claire Sloane (Kidman).

Ray becomes obsessed with finding the killer, and eventually identifies Anzor Marzin (Cole) as the likely suspect. But Marzin is a mole working within the mosque for CT’s Reggie Siefert (Kelly), and so DA Martin Morales (Molina), even though Marzin has incriminated himself, effectively kills the case on the grounds that Carolyn’s death is irrelevant alongside all the lives that could be saved through Marzin’s snitching.

Julia Roberts as Jess.

Thirteen years later, Ray, currently working as head of security for the New York Mets, believes he’s identified Marzin among the files of recently released prisoners. The man, now calling himself Clay Beckwith, flees parole, which would seem to confirm his guilt. Ray comes on his own dime to LA, where Claire has become the DA. She turns an official blind eye as Ray and his old colleague Bumpy Willis (Norris) renew the hunt for Carolyn’s killer . . .

Dean Norris as Bumpy.

Had I never seen El Secreto de sus Ojos I’d be saying right now that Secret in Their Eyes is an exceptional piece of work—it’s certainly better than the vast majority of crime-related dramas you’re likely to see. The ageing of the cast—especially of Roberts as Jess and Norris as Bumpy—is quite superbly done: they not just look older, they are older. (I’m tempted to say they have age in their eyes.) The camaraderie between Ray and Bumpy, both then and now, is done really well, and the relationship between Ray and Claire is pretty well handled too: back in 2002 they shared a love affair that never happened, and since then they’ve been living incomplete lives because apart.

Michael Kelly as Siefert.

Joe Cole as Anzor Marzin.

There are stunning performances here too, especially from Roberts, Ejiofor and Cole (although it’s almost certainly unfair to single out these three). Moder’s cinematography is flawless, with some stunning pieces of framing and uses of light. I could do without the piece of deduction that relies upon Marzin’s obsession with the Dodgers, and the consequences thereof, but essentially the screenplay works well too. The ending is very similar to that of the original, and every bit as powerful.

Overall, if you gave El Secreto de sus Ojos a score of 100 (I’m not suggesting it’s perfect, just going for mathematical simplicity) you could easily give Secret in Their Eyes 92 or 94—somewhere around there. As I say, taken in isolation it’s an impressive piece of work.

Alfred Molina as Morales.

But . . .

I could carp about how much more effective it is in the original that the older versions of investigator Benjamín (Ricardo Darín) and the judge, Irene (Soledad Villamil), are definitely middle-aged (25 years have passed rather than 13), with all the relevant extra creaks and lines and bulges. In Secret in Their Eyes the beloveds, Ray and particularly Claire, still seem at their physical peaks despite Ray’s smattering of gray hairs.

The real problem with the remake, though, is the change in setting. One of the colossal strengths of the original is its sense of paranoia because the earlier series of events is couched just before the Dirty War, when, if you trod on the wrong toes, even without realizing it, you could find yourself “disappeared,” tortured, murdered and dumped in a landfill, with no hope of recourse for your family and friends. Even in the tale’s later stages, with Argentina supposedly returned to democracy, there were still plenty of the killers at large, with some of them in positions of power. Whatever Benjamin and Irene do in their search for justice is, therefore, done against a backdrop of fear. They’re risking their lives just poking their noses in; worse still, they can’t even be sure in which directions the worst dangers lie.

Zoe Graham as Carolyn, whom everything else in the movie is really all about.

And it’s this that’s lacking from Secret in Their Eyes—not even just the paranoia but also the acceptance in the original that, even if Benjamin and Irene do succeed in bringing Isidoro (Javier Godino) to justice, it’ll be just a single wrong righted amid an ocean of unpunished brutalities and worse.

Of course, this missing aspect does mean that Secret in Their Eyes is a far better movie than El Secreto de sus Ojos for a night out—you’re far more likely to come out of the cinema chattering than oddly silent.

I guess it’s a matter of yer eats yer popcorn and yer makes yer choice.

8 thoughts on “Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

  1. Yes, I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said about this refashioned version. Viewed in isolation it’s a solid film, but the change in setting strips away the deep sense of unease associated with the political backdrop in Argentina. It’s a little like the recent remake of Sebastian Lelio’s brilliant film Gloria – now catapulted from Chile to the US for Gloria Bell (also directed by Lelio). As far as I understand it, the new version has lost something in the characterisation, a sense of loss or displacement that stems from being part of the Chile’s Pinochet generation. I loved the original so much that I can’t bring myself to watch the new one!

    • I know how you feel about Gloria/Gloria Bell, Jacqui. It’s for exactly this reason that it took years for me to watch Secret in Their Eyes, which I then did only as a matter of professional duty, so to speak. It was a pleasant surprise that the movie was at least okay, and a bonus that it simply didn’t have the heft to destroy the original for me. What’s a shame is that so many anglophone audiences will assume that this is essentially all the original has to offer.

      Thanks for the recommendation of Gloria! To my astonishment, my local library had the DVD, so it’s lined up for viewing her soon.

  2. The Secret in their Eyes in its original version and its remake is like Infernal Affairs and Scorsese’s The Departed. The political backgrounds to the two films vanish and what were meditations on kinds of criminality and societies and their connexions become superior thrillers. Worth watching, but without the complexities of the originals.
    Have you seen El Clan? It’s another Argentine film that looks at the links between the dirty war and criminality. Guillermo Francella plays a very different role.

    • I’d very much agree with you about the Internal Affairs/The Departed comparison, Roger. It’s such a shame that so many Hollywood remakes end up as empty shells; I guess we should count ourselves lucky that in a few instances, such as these, the result is a movie that’s at least okay.

      I haven’t seen El Clan: thanks very much indeed for the recommendation. I’ll have to see if I can persuade my local library to get hold of it for me.

      • Another argentine film – recently released in the UK, I don’t know about the USA – with cross-over between the Dirty War and noir (set just before in this case) is Rojo.

        • Again many thanks for the tip. I’d heard of Rojo but knew nothing about it. (I think I saw it was reviewed in t’Guardian, but didn’t actually read the review!) Now I’ve added it to the ever-growing List.

    • Have you seen the Argentinean original? We loved it! I actually liked the remake more than I’d anticipated, but then my expectations had been pretty rock-bottom.

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