|Written by Darren Gross|
|Saturday, 01 September 2007|
“Secret Window” is based on a novella with a slightly longer title (“Secret Window/Secret Garden”) that appeared in Stephen King’s 1990 anthology “Four Past Midnight.”
Deeply distraught by the discovery of his wife, Amy’s (Maria Bello) affair with Ted (Timothy Hutton), successful writer Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) holes up in his isolated lakeside cabin, licking his wounds and delaying signing his divorce papers. His miserable reverie is broken by the intrusion of an intimidating southerner named John Shooter (John Turturro) who angrily claims that Mort stole his story and, even worse, ruined the brilliant ending. Mort tries to dismiss the man’s claim but Shooter keeps returning to the cabin, his demands for reparation turning violent. After Shooter kills Mort’s faithful blind dog, the addled writer turns to detective friend Ken Karsch (Charles D. Dutton) for protection and then to his wife to try to settle the question of which story was published first.
Writer/director David Koepp’s “Secret Window” is another addition to the long list of disappointing adaptations of Stephen King works. It’s unfaithful to the original, expanding the middle section and bringing outside characters into the mix. The addition of other characters is admittedly a necessity; It’s not so much the script’s lack of fidelity to the original that’s the issue but the odd decisions made regarding what to keep and what to discard. A comment that recurs throughout the film is the importance of creating a good ending for a fictional story. It’s somewhat ironic that the ending here, while intended to be a shocking doozy of a finale, is wrong-headed, mean-spirited and unsatisfying. One of the reasons the conclusion may have felt acceptable to Koepp and co. is that it is an unconscious steal from the fadeout of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” However, while the last two shots pretty much tie everything up in that classic film, in “Secret Window” the last couple of shots don’t tell us anything we haven’t already figured out, leaving a satisfying conclusion maddeningly out of reach.
The story itself is an odd choice for adaptation. While novellas (particularly King’s) make easier transitions to the big screen than longer works, the original material is single-minded and is centered almost entirely on one character’s point of view and his internal reactions to external events. The story is essentially about a writer at his wits’ end being tormented at his isolated lakeside cabin. This works well in a novel when you can get inside the character’s head (it’s one of the unique strengths of that storytelling form), but stripped of that element we’re left with only surface incidents and a character’s physical behavior which deprive the film audience of three crucial items: understanding of the character, understanding his reasoning and most importantly, having sympathy for him.
The usually reliable Johnny Depp is badly miscast as Mort—one never believes he’s a writer, and any attempts to make him a brooding, tormented figure driven to the edge don’t work. His attempts to convey this darkness are too reliant on the repertoire of quirky mannerisms, odd reactions and facial tics that work so well for him in comedies; they add an inappropriate black comedy element. These elements weaken our ability to see Mort as a unique, darker character, and instead pulls us out of the film, reminding us that this is the same type of wacky, offbeat Depp character we’ve seen him play so often. His use of a large facial tic—rolling his head and opening his mouth wide to crack his jaw—is distracting and an obvious bit of character playing. Depp has been great elsewhere, but he’s all wrong here. He’s done somber and haunted roles before (he was exquisite in “Finding Neverland”) but his choices here are completely unsubtle and inconsistent. As a result, the twist at the end doesn’t seem natural and revealing, it feels manipulative and lame.
Timothy Hutton is well-cast in a fairly small role, and he’s believably unpleasant. Charles S. Dutton’s detective character is nothing new, but he’s well played; Dutton makes him so likeable that one is disappointed by his fate and his disappearance from the rest of the narrative. The last third of the film could use him badly. The wonderful Len Cariou (the original Sweeney Todd from Sondheim’s original stage musical) is wasted in a nothing role as the local Sheriff.
The early section is tedious and unengaging, the middle section brings in some welcome supporting characters who raise the level of dramatic interest and help build dramatic tension and suspense, but the ending is off-kilter and the reveal is handled poorly. All the tweaks made to the story to add characters and expand it don’t make for a cohesive work. It feels like a ragged patchwork construction, with characters introduced, elaborated on and dispatched off-screen, ultimately serving no real function. It plays as a work that a studio tried to save with reshoots and rewrites, but it isn’t—all these disparate elements were in the script from the start. It’s not really a question of a more faithful adaptation being better (based on the opening half-hour it would have been monotonous, claustrophobic and dull), it’s simply a work that is not really fitting for screen adaptation. Perhaps if the general idea and twist of the story were kept and used as a springboard for a different tale it may have been a workable approach, but the end result here is confusion.
The Blu-ray release delivers a crisp, extremely solid and stable image that is full of fine detail. Elements like Mort’s ratty bathrobe have a noteworthy level of sharpness: one can clearly see the threadwork in the costumes as well as in the pillows and other furnishings.
The uncompressed PCM sound is fine and the level is set perfectly—once set, it remains consistent throughout. Surround activity is fairly minimal until the climactic scenes where it becomes highly active. The somewhat sparse music by Philip Glass is fairly atypical for him, lacking his use of repetition, escalating themes and wall-to-wall vibrancy. It’s a score that ably supports the visuals, but it’s a somewhat unremarkable work. The music is well-presented on the PCM surround track, which conveys the music with a great degree of dynamism, intensity and richness.
Director/writer David Koepp seems to be an intelligent, capable and pleasant helmsman on the commentary and featurettes. It’s a shame that the final result isn’t better, because it’s clear that he was passionate about making the film, and that a great deal of thought went into the visual storytelling and the approach. The featurettes total 63 minutes and spotlight behind-the-scenes footage; talking-head interviews with Koepp and film clips are used to illustrate his examples. As a result, the commentary covers much of the same material, and is a bit repetitious. The deleted scenes also include an alternate ending, which is really just an expansion of the last shot. Another alternate ending mentioned in the commentary is unfortunately not included. Be warned: the disc menu features a footage loop that uses background images from suspense sequences late in the film that ruin a few surprises, though not the “big” one.