Julia Roberts has never looked worse and rarely been better than in this emotionally charged remake of El Secreto de Sus Ojos, the 2009 Oscar-winning thriller from Argentina, in which she plays Jess Cobb, an investigator in the Los Angeles DA’s office who learns that her teen daughter has been murdered. Sans makeup, and wearing dark contact lenses to make her normally radiant brown eyes dishwater dull, Roberts wraps herself in a dowdy demeanor like a body bag in order to bring Jess’ inner turmoil to vivid life. Late in the story, a concerned friend tells her, “I think you look a million years old.” He isn’t kidding. Cinematographer Danny Moder (who is also Roberts’ husband) uses harsh, unflattering light to deglamorize the actress, and her limp, backwoods hairstyle makes the transition complete. It’s the very definition of a vanity-free performance.
The movie’s mystery begins as Jess’ life starts to unravel. It’s early 2002, just four months after the 9/11 attacks, and Jess, part of an investigative team keeping surveillance on a mosque where suspected terrorists may be hiding, learns a body has been found in a dumpster beside the place of worship. When she arrives at the crime scene, her partner Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) informs her that the victim is her daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). From there, the story ricochets back and forth between 2002 and the present day, when Ray, now a private investigator in New York, tries to get District Attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman) to reopen the case. He believes he knows who the killer is and where he might be found. But Claire is hesitant to help out due to scant evidence, as well as the fact that they were unable to convict the same suspect 13 years ago. Even though the alleged killer was caught, he was released because he was an informant whom the Feds hoped would lead them to a terrorist sleeper cell. In addition, Jess is also reluctant: She doesn’t want to relive the past and see her daughter’s murderer get away once again. Ray, however, refuses to let go, and doggedly pursues his instincts. His passion for finding justice for Carolyn is only matched by his feelings for Claire. “Passion always wins,” Jess tells Ray. But Ray, a genuinely decent man, can’t face the possibility that he may have lived the past 13 years in vain, spending each night poring through endless mug shots to match a suspect, all while pining for a married woman he knows will probably never be his partner.
It’s rare that a remake improves on the original, but that’s what writer/director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) has achieved with this film. In El Secreto de Sus Ojos, a banker’s wife is raped and murdered, but the banker has no connection to the detective working the case. By making Ray and Jess co-workers and friends, the story becomes much more intimate and personal; it’s easier to understand why Ray is so determined to catch the killer, and it ups the ante considerably for all involved. But director Ray has wisely chosen to keep what worked best in the Argentine film to propel the suspense -- most of the major plot points, twists, and standout scenes are included here. And yes, the ending is the same, but it’s even more gut-wrenching this time around.
While Roberts is excellent and deserves all of the praise that will likely be heaped upon her, it’s Ejiofor who carries the picture with a forceful, lived-in performance that expertly swings between grit, grief, and guilt to make us feel the full weight of Ray’s dilemma. Kidman, too, is first-rate as the cool, Harvard-educated beauty Ray can’t get over, and a top-notch supporting cast that includes Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, and Joe Cole are equally effective.
Fans of El Secreto de Sus Ojos may come away disappointed, since they already know the story’s dark secrets. But those seeing the movie with fresh eyes will discover a haunting, suspense-filled thriller about love and loss, justice and retribution, that isn’t easily shaken.
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- Released: 2015
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Julia Roberts has never looked worse and rarely been better than in this emotionally charged remake of El Secreto de Sus Ojos, the 2009 Oscar-winning thriller from Argentina, in which she plays Jess Cobb, an investigator in the Los Angeles DA’s office who… (more)