Pitched somewhere between a David Fincher crime procedural, a Denis Lehane suspense novel and a “Mommie Dearest” melodrama, documentarian Amy Berg’s move into the feature-length world of dramatic narrative is by nature of the material, an uneven one. It’s not for want of trying, however. Making her narrative debut here, Berg directs the hell out of every crime segment in the film, and there’s a strong level of craft in sequences that would make Fincher and “Se7en” DP Darius Khondji proud. And Nicole Holofcener’s adaptation of the book doesn’t have any real egregious material, at least not in its dialogue.
But there’s something lost in the translation from psychological suspense novel by author Laura Lippmann: what likely reads as gripping, disturbing and haunting on the page is occasionally engaging, but strains suspension of disbelief and credulity throughout on the screen. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Ostensibly a movie about shame, manipulation and the childhood traumas that can manifest horribly, the damages behind these characters are eventually revealed, but they don’t always add up convincingly.
“Every Secret Thing” has an expansive plot (and if it sounds like a dime store crime novel premise, you’re forgiven). After being humiliatingly shunned from a birthday party, two young girls that just want to fit in discover an unattended baby in stroller on a porch and steal it away. The inevitable tragedy occurs and the kids from the wrong side of the tracks are sent to a juvenile detention center until they are eighteen. Fast forward about eight or nine years and Alice (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) are now released, but the community around them hasn’t forgiven or forgotten their heinous crime. Why would children of this age commit such a monstrous act? What’s the psychological underpinnings of such a deed (that feels rather far-fetched from minute one)? The movie gently paints them as outcasts, but then slowly pans back to reveal the truths, but the answers are both unpersuasive and fairly rote.
The overweight Alice lives a dual life of lies. She’s sheltered by her domineering mother (Diane Lane) and at the same time she vanishes for hours on end to go God knows where. The meek and quiet Ronnie just keeps her head down trying to stay off anyone’s radar. But when the child of a local couple goes missing just days after Alice and Ronnie are released from juvenile detention, a determined, but self-doubting detective (Elizabeth Banks) with a personal stake in the original crime, and her partner (Nate Parker), begin to investigate this mystery and in doing so run up against a clandestine shade of secrets, lies and misdirection.
Told from several character viewpoints, a “Rashomon”-effect begins to accrue, but it never builds into much of a head of steam. Instead, “Every Secret Thing”—which suggests a movie about community, and the rippling impact of a tragedy on one—doesn’t really achieve its mark and tends to suffer from POV issues. Is it the story of a detective with emotional baggage seeking to unravel a mystery surrounding missing children? Is it about the prime suspect? Or is it about the manipulative mother who’s been pulling the strings all along? In truth, it’s all these things, working in tandem and all three of the main characters, Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, and Danielle Macdonald own the story. But a lack of central and constantly shifting viewpoint does cloud the narrative and focus. It also precludes the movie from having a taut snap; 90 minutes feels more like a drawn-out two hours.
There’s also something deeply troubling about the Alice character, even though this feels as though it’s an unpleasant element the author and filmmaker wanted the reader/viewer to confront. The film wisely toys with the preconceived perceptions of various characters, but often just lands them in the obvious place anyhow. It’s disconcerting to see the fat, ugly, irritating young girl play the overweight, unattractive, irritating rogue of the movie and all that it suggests (and it’s about as contemptible a character as you can get). Given her unfortunate circumstances, the movie never really tries to make us empathize with her. Yes, she’s supposed to be the product of something more insidious, but a bit more sympathy measured her way might have rounded the character out and made her feel less cartoonish.
As the dogged detective haunted by this crime, Elizabeth Banks is extremely good and shows her range beyond the broad comedy she’s often been relegated to (and directors should take note). Equally good is Nate Parker, as her no-nonsense detective partner. Dakota Fanning is also compelling as Ronnie, the meeker half of the two girls, but she isn’t given a lot to do. But Diane Lane and Danielle Macdonald are just millimeters away from raising their antagonist eyebrows too archly and while minute, it’s perceptible.
For a crime procedural, “Every Secret Thing” is often incisive and effective—DP Rob Hardy’s atmospheric shroud of shadows and distressed ochres makes for a terrific mood of dread and suggested trauma. But the narrative of the book ultimately gets very familiar: how many times has a mystery whodunit left you in the dark and then slowly unfold to reveal the real killer in the last few moments with a twist that’s supposed to disturb?
Known for her insightful documentaries, “West of Memphis,” and “Deliver Us From Evil,” Berg certainly makes some strong cinematic choices throughout evincing both a sharp eye for camera placement that feels initially extremely assured. But too many character behaviors seem rooted in preordained novel-to-script obligations instead of genuine motivation. The inherent cheap antagonist traits—the controlling mom with a secret, the unhinged daughter—just go down a little tastelessly.
Co-starring Common and Sarah Sokolovic (a standout in a supporting role) as the bi-racial, low-income parents of the missing child, Berg’s drama plays with a lot of ideas about race, gender, class, body issues, socio-economic circumstance and more, but at the end of the day, it’s all tangential texture for what turns out to be a fairly traditional crime mystery about what it means to be bad.
Additionally, “Every Secret Thing” is not built to satisfy, and so its sour ending doesn’t help its uneven experience. “Every Secret Thing” is not unlike last autumn’s abduction drama “Prisoners.” Both demonstrate an excellent level of craft and are handsomely shot and composed, but both suffer from narrative issues (some of which were and will be deal breakers to various audiences). But for my money, “Prisoners” is the superior film, even as it too strains believability at times. Berg brings a lot of control and precision to her crime tale at the outset, much like Denis Villeneuve’s film, which makes it all the more disappointing when the film wanders and her characters seemingly drift away from her cool control. [B-]