It’s hard acknowledging the appeal of murder mystery films. They tap into a dark, but ultimately curious side of their fans, and I admittedly will most likely always say yes to any crime related movie. Maybe it was a childhood fascination for the game Clue (and the film) or maybe it’s too many episodes of Law and Order, but there is something thrilling about watching the steps it takes to solve a crime. Secret in Their Eyes is the story of a heinous murder (cue Law and Order theme song), but it is not the murder mystery you might expect.
In 2002, post-911, counterterrorism was the name of the game — it was top priority. The film begins with a group of investigators tasked with fighting terrorism, and its domestic roots in Los Angeles. Their jobs and lives are forever changed when a call about a dead body, near a mosque under their surveillance, comes in. Their arrival to the scene is ordinary, but that quickly changes when one of the investigators realizes the body of the young woman in the dumpster belongs to Carolyn (Zoe Graham), the daughter of Jess (Julia Roberts), one of their team members.
Rather than focusing on evidence and clues, Secret in Their Eyes is a deeply personal look at the repercussions of the choices we do and do not make. Carolyn’s murder affected (and still affects) the whole team of investigators involved, and the film’s story revolves around each of the characters’ different attempts to either absolve themselves or simply get over the fact that the killer slipped through their fingers, despite their best efforts. The main crusader, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has spent the last 13 years working the crime after hours, obsessively combing databases for the killer’s current whereabouts. Then there is Claire (Nicole Kidman), a young lawyer when Carolyn was killed, who has worked her way to District Attorney while still haunted by the case. Even Jess seems to have pushed the dark days behind her, making her way to lead investigator. All of their best efforts to avoid the unsolved murder come to head when Ray announces that he has found the killer -- forcing everyone to dive back into the feelings they’ve run away from for over a decade. It’s an interesting approach for this kind of film, where one expects the majority of the time to be spent on street chases and DNA labs. Instead, the film is an ode to relationships and the mistakes we don’t realize we’ve made until it’s too late.
The downside to Secret in Their Eyes is it simply lacks the thrill of the expectations set by the trailer. For those looking for Kiss the Girls or The Bone Collector, this movie isn’t it. The pacing is slow and the crime is more of a backdrop, rather than a driving force. Julia Roberts delivers a notably visceral performance as a grieving mother — her ability to control even just minor movements in her body is both perplexing and commendable. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a comfortable performance as a mission-driven man out to set things right. The duos acting chops would’ve been put to much better use within a more worthwhile story however. It’s not one worth spending money on folks, wait for the Netflix release.