Politics and procedure get in the way of justice in “Secret In Their Eyes,” a clunky and increasingly absurd Americanized adaptation of the 2009 Argentinean import (itself based on a 2005 novel) that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Led by an all-star cast that still can’t make the material’s plot twists anything less than groan-worthy, this thriller from Billy Ray (writer of “The Hunger Games” and “Captain Phillips,” director of “Shattered Glass”) concerns the murder of a young teenage girl named Carolyn (Zoe Graham), who’s found one 2002 Los Angeles morning in a dumpster next to a mosque being watched by FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — officially part of the counter-terrorism team — and his partner Jess (Julia Roberts). When they arrive at the scene, they’re horrified to discover that the victim is Jess’ daughter. And worse still, that there are almost no clues (save for a witness having seen a van) pointing to a perpetrator.
That set-up comes only after a present-day introduction that depicts Ray — now the head of security at the New York Mets’ Citi Field, and a loner who spends his nights combing through public databases of felons — locating the mug shot for which he’s been searching. He’s soon back in L.A. asking the district attorney that he always loved but could never quite muster the courage to ask out, Claire (Nicole Kidman), to reopen Carolyn’s unsolved case. Thus “Secret In Their Eyes” sets up its concurrent storylines, with Ray’s 2002 search for Carolyn’s killer told at the same time as his 2015 quest to finally nail the guy he believes committed the crime but who got away due to some ill-defined sloppy mistake on Ray’s part.
Writer/director Ray establishes his conceit through deft conversational scenes in which details naturally materialize, in drips and drabs, from the action at hand. The result is that, at the outset, his film demands, and engenders, constant, focused attention on the particulars of its plot. Those soon come to center on Marzin (Joe Cole), a mosque member whom Ray first spies in suspicious company-picnic photos, but whom he’s prevented from officially pursuing by both an antagonistic fellow agent (Michael Kelly) and his boss (Alfred Molina) — the reason being that Marzin, though possibly guilty, is also an informant on the verge of delivering key information on a deadly sleeper cell. With the sound of terror-alert TV broadcasts blaring on the soundtrack, Ray soon comes to understand that the government cares far more about preventing another 9/11 than about solving an isolated homicide.
It’s a promising premise fit for a thorny inquiry into personal and institutional priorities, and yet no sooner has “Secret In Their Eyes” laid its story’s groundwork than it goes off the rails. Considerable time is spent on Ray flirting with Claire, all so their suppressed affections can eventually facilitate contrived narrative developments. Meanwhile, Ray proves obsessed with nabbing Marzin to the point that he immediately ignores every imaginable protocol, thereby turning his 2002 investigation into a case study in bungling hothead idiocy. Ray’s behavior is so ludicrously unprofessional, and so obviously self-sabotaging, that — despite Ejiofor’s innate likability — it renders him downright imbecilic. The fact that Ejiofor carries himself with an air of intelligence only further makes Ray seem like a phony construct, and turns the ensuing action into a spectacle of ostensibly smart people behaving incredibly stupidly.
In Ray’s recklessness, as well as in another character’s climactic behavior, “Secret In Their Eyes” seems interested in making a point (articulated, obliquely, by Jess) about the potential hazards of giving in to one’s most ardent passions. Such a notion isn’t developed by Ray’s script, however, and is contradicted by Ray and Claire’s refusal to act on their amorous feelings for each other — a reticence that never really has any impact on the proceedings, one way or another. Such is the muddled nature of this misshapen film, which affords its leads numerous opportunities to wail, fume and engage in heated debate, but only employs their one-note performances — Kidman rigid but kind; Roberts frumpy yet quietly fierce — for a tale that drops its romantic and timely anti-terror threads in order to more fully concentrate on the most preposterous surprise ending in recent memory. [C]