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Family Movie Review: Secret in Their Eyes (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 111 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 15+. This drama is a movie clearly made with adults in mind, from the subject matter to the emotional content: terrorism and national security are discussed; a young woman is raped and killed, and we see her abandoned body and how people imagined her death; there is some sexual tension and a bit of cleavage-baring; some cursing and language; and one scene where a man flashes a woman and threatens her life.

Movies don’t really get made purely for adults anymore, so ‘Secret in Their Eyes’ feels like a throwback. This adaptation of an Argentinian film raises questions about everything from national security to the American justice system, and its inarguable grown-upness is refreshing.

By Roxana Hadadi

Our movie industry is ruled by superheroes, franchises, spinoffs, young-adult-literature adaptations, mega-blockbusters that cost $150 million and expect to return billions. Some of that stuff turns out meaningful, like this week’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.” But most of the time, that lopsided nature of Hollywood means that movies for specific audiences don’t get made anymore – movies purely for adults. Yet here comes “Secret in Their Eyes” to save the day, to deliver talented, grown-up actors with multifaceted, complex performances, not one of whom turns out to be a caped crusader. It’s a welcome change of pace.

That’s not to suggest that “Secret in Their Eyes” is unique; it’s not, being an English-language adaptation of an Oscar-winning Argentinian film. But while the core of the film is shared with the original “El Secreto de Sus Ojos,” the changes for American audiences are effective; there are concerns about terrorism, about the efficacy of the American justice system, about how quick we are to forget young women who are murdered; about what we ask of those who keep us safe. In the course of righting a wrong, how much is too much? How much is not enough?

“Secret in Their Eyes” jumps between two timelines, but the basic storyline is this: Thirteen years ago in 2002, a counterterrorism unit in Los Angeles brings three people together: FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of “The Martian”), his fellow investigator partner Jess (Julia Roberts, of “Mirror Mirror”), and an assistant prosecutor, Claire (Nicole Kidman, of “Paddington”). Ray and Jess have been working on surveillance of a local mosque for weeks, convinced that the house of worship is a center of terrorist activity – and only months after Sept. 11, 2001, that is a huge deal. They are being pressured to bring down a sleeper cell that may be based out of the mosque, and the stress just keeps building.

But then, a body is found in a dumpster near the mosque – the body of Jess’s teenage daughter, raped and killed, body cleaned with bleach and dumped. The news shatters Jess, and inspires Ray – what can they do to find who did this? Thirteen years later, Ray is still searching, even though he left the force and dropped out of contact with Jess and Claire. This time, he thinks he has the guy – and his return to Los Angeles, spurred by this news, reignites alliances and tensions between the three that began all those years ago.

“Secret in Their Eyes” jumps between time periods often, and that stylistic choice is both a benefit and a misstep. On the good side of things, the structure allows for the actors to show their grasp of the characters, moving between two time periods and two sets of characteristics, desires, and personalities, and of course Ejiofor, Roberts, and Kidman are on the top of their game. Much like Ejiofor dominated “Z for Zachariah” with his effusive performance, he is unforgettable here, too; his crumpling, obliterated face when he discovers Jess’s daughter’s body is searing. And Roberts and Kidman hold their own, delivering snappiness and intelligence from interrogation rooms to secret meetings at local sports bars.

But at the same time, the film’s skipping between timelines sprinkles in too many clues, especially as the narrative zeroes in on one suspect. As the film circles around that suspect and brings its arguments about revenge vs. justice and the lives of many vs. the lives of the few down upon him, the storyline gets muddled, but how it will conclude becomes more clear. You can guess the ending here, although there is still power in it.

And perhaps “Secret in Their Eyes” wants you to figure it out, so you can feel what the characters are feeling – the guilt and the shame and the rage and the despair. There is certainly enough of it to go around, but “Secret in Their Eyes” handles all the twists and turns like a good ‘90s thriller, the kind of movie that doesn’t get made any more. Here’s hoping “Secret in Their Eyes” sparks a resurgence.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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