Documentaries, it seems, are never enough. You’re not a real filmmaker in this country unless you create sweeping narrative features. Scorsese, Demme, Jarmusch, Apted have all made docs, and it’s always seen as dabbling. Their real work is elsewhere. Doc makers observe this with yearning. And then jump off the cliff. And it’s not like there aren’t ramifications. Just ask Michael Moore about “Canadian Bacon.”
This comes to mind because of “Every Secret Thing,” a thriller directed by Amy Berg, who doesn’t really have enough credits to be categorized as one kind of filmmaker or another. Still, her documentary work to date has been superb: “Deliver Us From Evil” was perhaps the best film to deal with priestly pedophilia, and the Catholic Church’s delinquency. Berg got amazing access, told the story crisply, cleanly, with a focus, journalistic integrity and a keen feel for visual storytelling. Her film was a showcase for that most cherished gift of the doc maker, an ability to coerce reality into a dramatic organism. (A side note: “Deliver” won the New York Film Critics’ nonfiction award, in a year when every other prize was going to “An Inconvenient Truth,” and amid a crop that included “Jesus Camp,” “My Country, My Country” and “Iraq in Fragments.”)
Berg’s “West of Memphis” certainly benefited from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s energy, money and devotion to the cause of exonerating the railroaded West Memphis 3. But the director made the story what it was — a clear, concise recapitulation of an unwieldy legal saga, and a very powerful film (not to take anything away from the “Paradise Lost” trilogy; Joe Berlinger please hang up your cell phone).
Like the kidnapped baby at the center of the story, it all vanishes in “Every Secret Thing,” a movie with a considerable pedigree. The book is by noted detective-fiction author Laura Lippman; the script is by Nicole Holofcener; Frances Dormand makes her producing debut alongside Anthony Bregman, who has made wonderful movies, including most of Holofcener’s; the cast includes Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks and Dakota Fanning.
And yet – there is very little tension, the story is confused, and the characters are unbelievable. A couple of them are deranged, but even crazy people can be consistently crazy, at least for purposes of a movie. And besides, the problem isn’t craziness. It’s that people say and do things contrary to what we have been led to think their characters are, for purposes of moving the story from one illogical point to another. The narrative seems to have been made up as Berg went along. We will chalk up the look of the film to malfunctions at the Tribeca Film Festival, where technical snafus are rare, only because Ron Hardy is too good a cinematographer to have shot the film through this kind of murk.
It’s conceivable that, had Berg based her feature debut on a real-life case, things would have coalesced. But no: Lippman’s book is a hodgepodge of true-crime stories, notably the James Bulger murder of 1993 (the basis for the similar and vastly superior “Boy A” of 2007, which Hardy, coincidentally, shot). Holofcener’s script doesn’t delineate sufficiently between what is reality and flashback or the “Rashomon”-like recollections of the principal characters: Alice Manning (Danielle McDonald) and Ronnie Fuller (Fanning) who seven years earlier kidnapped a baby who turned up dead; or Alice’s mother Helen (Lane), so twisted a font of psychosis and maternal malpractice that the viewer would need a schematic to keep her vaguely straight.
Banks is the detective, Nancy Porter, who investigated the earlier case, and has now been assigned a new one: Another toddler has disappeared, and the all-too-obvious suspects are the recently released Alice and Ronnie.
Fanning is something of a wonder: She completely internalizes the guilt and mental anguish someone would suffer, even if they were only remotely involved in as horrendous a crime as the one for which she and Alice were incarcerated. And her performance has almost nothing to do with the script. Or the direction. In fact, elsewhere in the movie are moments of bewildering cluelessness, such as when the second child disappears from under the not-so-careful watch of her parents (Common and Sarah Sokolovic) while they’re shopping, and the mother goes into a fit of complete, paralyzing hysteria. We get it; it’s a horrifying situation. But wouldn’t Mom run out in the street first to see if the kid was on the sidewalk?
Likewise, the behavior of the young kidnappers, played by Brynne Norquist (Alice) and Eva Grace Kellner (Ronnie), who are pretty useless, but also weirdly written: Would girls of 8 or 9 years old ever think you could leave a baby alone in a cave without food, water or diapers and come back tomorrow?
As logically coherent as Berg’s other films have been, this one is just as off. She’s had help, of course, in lulling “Every Secret Thing” into a state of lassitude. But what’s far more troubling than anything that happens in the film is why a gifted filmmaker feels compelled to go where their gifts don’t naturally lead.
Criticwire Grade: D
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Despite the negative buzz out of Tribeca, the film’s cast should yield a respectable distribution deal and yield solid results on VOD, if not in theaters.