Some stories cannot be transplanted from one culture to another without losing much in the process.
Such is the case with “Secret in Their Eyes,” an American remake of an Argentine release which in 2010 won the Oscar for best foreign language film.
The story arcs of the two films are pretty much interchangeable. Both feature a chase through a packed sports stadium, and each ends with a head-spinning last-act revelation capable of inducing a tummy full of dread.
And yet the particulars are different enough that what worked magnificently in one version sputters and dies in the other.
This film from writer/director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) is presented as two interlocking stories taking place in two decades.
In the present former FBI agent (now he handles security for the New York Mets) Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returns to his old haunts in Los Angeles to complete some unfinished business.
For 13 years Ray has been haunted by the murder of young Caroline Cobb, whose mother Jess (Julia Roberts) was a colleague and investigator for the L.A. District Attorney’s Office.
Ray and Jess were part of a task force looking for terrorist activity originating in a local mosque. The most likely murder suspect was a oddball young man and a member of that congregation.
But the D.A. (Alfred Molina) kept throwing roadblocks in front of the murder investigation. Eventually it was revealed that the suspect was a confidential informant reporting on activities at the mosque. Killer or not, the powers that be are kept him out of the legal system. Given the rampant paranoia after 9/11, they decided that preventing another terrorist attack trumps solving a young woman’s murder.
Despite lacking legal authorization or jurisdiction, Ray and Jess (Roberts has dowdied herself into near-unrecognizability) went after the suspect on their own. They were cautiously abetted by Claire (Nicole Kidman), a new prosecutor for whom Ray had (and continues to have) a raging case of unrequited love/lust.
But the suspect vanishes and the trail went cold.
Now, in the present, Ray reveals that he has spent his spare time over the last 13 years studying photos of every Caucasian inmate in the U.S. prison system. He announces that he’s finally found their man.
The guy appears to have changed his identity and undergone some plastic surgery, but Ray is sure this is the killer. He’s now on parole in the Los Angeles area.
Jess isn’t so sure. Claire, who by now has been elected district attorney, tries to help all she can without breaking too many rules.
“Secret…” is more confusing than revelatory. For starters, despite changing hairstyles and touches of gray, it’s hard to distinguish between the scenes set in 2002 and those in 2016.
And then there’s the unspoken love between Ray and Claire, which just doesn’t work. There’s absolutely no heat in the relationship…plus Kidman’s Claire comes off as an unattainable ice queen.
But the real problem is in the change of venue. In the Argentinian film the murderer was a member of a right-wing death squad who received protection from the Peronist government. For Argentinian viewers that detail was like running sandpaper over the open sore of the country’s troubled political history and its slow struggle to democracy.
The post 9/11 setting of this remake simply doesn’t have that sort of built-in oomph, or the original’s moral teeth.
On paper, anyway, this remake examines the passage of time, the dull ache of loss and the grim satisfaction of revenge, and yearnings of love unrealized.
But the viewing experience isn’t anywhere near that compelling.