A listless, half-baked, vaguely Hitchcockian thriller about a Romani Holocaust survivor (a flushed Noomi Rapace) who’s trying to make a new life for herself in a Mayberry-like American suburb during the 1950s, Yuval Adler’s “The Secrets We Keep” hinges on a single question that it struggles to ask with the weight it demands and/or answer with the grindhouse-like glee it encourages: Is the friendly-seeming family man whose accented voice she recognizes in town one afternoon (Joel Kinnaman) actually one of the Nazi goons who executed her sister towards the end of the war?
The odds are slim — and memory is a murky body of water even before you filter it through the stuff of historical trauma — but such a twist of fate is hardly inconceivable. The perpetrators of the Holocaust scattered as far and wide as the diasporas they attempted to destroy, and Lt. Aldo Raine wasn’t able to carve a swastika into all of their foreheads before they went into hiding. And yet, the most effective stretches of “The Secrets We Keep” are the ones that seed a little doubt in Maja’s recollection, shake our confidence in a character whose convictions only grow more enflamed, and make us wonder if this sloppy piece of polite exploitation might actually be sophisticated enough to grapple with the consequences of its heroine getting things very wrong indeed.
We do eventually learn the truth about the man who Maja and her all-American husband (a well-cast Chris Messina, master of playing clenched men who live their entire lives bracing for emasculation) have bound and gagged in their basement, but not before Adler and Ryan Covington’s threadbare script is able to insist that it doesn’t really matter; that Maja’s past followed her across the Atlantic regardless of whether or not her neighbor played an awful role in it. It’s the intriguing conclusion to a much better movie, but here — tacked on to the end of a genre exercise that’s hardly suspenseful enough to sell the mystery of its basic premise, let alone leverage the “is he or isn’t he?” of it all into something richer — such heady abstractions don’t quite fit with the rest of the house.
The most frustrating thing about “The Secrets We Keep” — the Israeli director’s second English-language film since 2013’s explosive “Bethlehem” made him a star back home — isn’t that it’s low-rent, but that it’s anonymous. Maja is so determined to reinvent herself as a rosy-cheeked American housewife that not even her husband knows what happened to her during the war, and it often feels as if the movie around her shares its protagonist’s desire to be unremarkable. Early noir flourishes (low-angle shots of Rapace standing against a blue sky, her bandana whipping in the wind) artlessly surrender to a more generic style once Maja kidnaps her neighbor and turns her basement into her own personal Nuremberg.
Much like its heroine, the film struggles to reconcile the violent opportunity it’s presented with the domesticity its hoping to protect, but Adler neglects to capitalize on a character who’s split between being a mom and a sadist. The upstairs/downstairs element of Maja’s situation is flattened into flavorless gruel as the film desperately searches for new ways to complicate its DIY hostage situation, and its Hitchcockian premise is diluted by a “Saw”-like execution. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before: Kinnaman puts his heart into pleading his case, trying to escape, appealing to Maja’s husband when they’re alone, screaming for help whenever he can, and otherwise killing time while the plot thickens around him.
A movie less satisfied by its own barbarism might have dug a bit deeper into the ways this situation complicates Maja’s relationship, but “The Secrets We Keep” is terminally focused on the basics at the expense of everything else. Rapace and Messina make the most of what few moments they get to reassess their marriage — Messina convincingly sells the idea that his character is too caught off-guard not to become his wife’s accomplice — but the movie is in too much of a hurry to flesh the couple out before the bloodletting starts. The scenes in which they get to be defined outside of the hostage crisis (Maja’s husband going full “Mad Men” and calling her former psychiatrist for dirt) are even choppier and more shapeless than the rest of the film. A flurry of third act heart-to-hearts aren’t enough to sell the new ways these characters have come to see each other.
Likewise, a subplot involving the hostage’s wife (an extremely welcome Amy Seimetz, spinning rich layers of hurt from just a few lines of dialogue) is intriguing for how it mirrors the relationship between Maja and her husband, but the film treats even this meaningful detour with all the seriousness of a McGuffin, and tosses Seimetz aside as soon as her character has been mined for a dollop of suspense. The pain of forced itinerance, the weight of family trauma, and the extent to which the knowledge of someone’s past can affect their actual presence are just some of the subjects that pass by “The Secrets We Keep” as it struggles to find an identity it can live with.
Adler may not want to think of this as a schlocky B-movie that hangs its bigger ideas around hacky scenes of amateur torture like a mismatched set of blood-stained drapes, but there’s no mistaking it for anything else.
“The Secrets We Keep” is now playing in theaters. It will be released on VOD on October 16.
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