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Secret Window (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 12 March 2004
“Secret Window” is a frustrating movie. Writer-director David Koepp skillfully plants clues to his surprise ending throughout the film. The acting is very good, and Koepp and Johnny Depp work together very well. Koepp has learned from Hitchcock and other experts in suspense thrillers and includes a good deal of humor, particularly through Depp’s quirky, inventive performance.

The score by Philip Glass isn’t one of the composer’s most inventive, but it’s well-suited to the movie. The photography by Fred Murphy and the production design by Howard Cummings are expert, with great use made of scenic Canadian locations (standing in for upstate New York).

But the movie stubbornly refuses to work. The central problem is that the plot, which Koepp treats as if it’s stunningly original, is all too familiar. It’s not quite the utter failure in this regard that, say, “Twisted” was, but almost anyone familiar with this kind of film will realize what the twist is well before the Big Reveal. You certainly don’t have to have read “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” the Stephen King novella the film is based on, to realize what’s really happening here.

There is some sense that Koepp does realize that he’s not exactly inventing the wheel here. The last few shots are of ears of corn and then a corn patch. Maybe Koepp is acknowledging that, yes, I do know this is all pretty corny. His casting of Timothy Hutton in a supporting role may—and may not—be another example of this, perhaps deliberately referencing the earlier King movie Hutton starred in. That movie and this share some plot similarities.

But still the familiarity of the plot ham-strings the movie. You figure everything out halfway through, and then have to sit impatiently waiting for the movie to catch up. Instead of feeling suspense, you’re just feeling annoyed.

Depp is popular author Mort Rainey. In quick flashbacks, we see him catching his wife Amy (Maria Bello) in bed with Ted (Hutton). Now it’s six months later. Mort hasn’t signed all the necessary papers or done very much of anything. Amy has the house in town, Mort is lounging around (in her tatty bathrobe) at their handsome cottage on a lake. He mutters a lot, often stretching his jaw, talks to his blind dog Cisco, and mostly lays around on the couch for hours at a time. He is not doing any writing; he’s something like two sentences into a new story or novel, and there he’s stopped.
He’s abruptly roused by the appearance of black-hatted hick John Shooter (John Turturro), up from Mississippi with a claim that Rainey plagiarized a story Shooter wrote. Rainey points out that the story in question was published two years before Shooter even wrote his, but Rainey demands proof. He leaves, warning that he’ll be back.

Rainey’s still stalled. Time passes slowly (Koepp uses lots of images indicating this), and he disregards Shooter as a threat. That is until he finds Cisco dead, stabbed with a screwdriver. He hires a slick private detective (Charles S. Dutton), but this doesn’t prevent Amy’s house from burning to the ground.

Shooter keeps turning up, and bad things keep happening, but Rainey has a hard time mustering the evidence. (The story is in one of his collections. Surely that would include a reference to where it was first published?) We learn that in the past, Rainey really did plagiarize someone, but we never believe that’s what happened with Shooter’s story. It’s unclear if Koepp actually wants us to doubt his protagonist.

The movie is elegantly made, with brilliant use of a frequently moving camera. The first shot, in fact, is a bravura aerial glide over the lake; without a cut, the camera goes ashore, up to a window in the cabin, in through the window to a railing overlooking the living room below, then pans over to a mirror, moving in on Rainey’s image in the mirror. It does not move to a direct view of Rainey, but slides into the mirror—and in a sense, that’s where the whole story takes place, in a mirror world. But only in a sense. The mirror does come back into play later in the movie; there’s a peculiarly disturbing shot of Depp staring into the mirrior—and seeing instead of his face, the back of his head.

Depp and Koepp have great fun demonstrating Rainey’s crumbling grip on reality. Depp often provides a voice-over narration, and sometimes the Depp on screen continues the narration, sometimes even replying. He looks distracted, with rumpled, fly-away hair and clumsy clothes. He rarely removes his stocking cap. Someone greets him with “You look pale.” He absently replies, “Thank you….” Depp is the most fun alone on screen since those episodes in which Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) was alone.

But the movie slams into the all-too-guessable, all-too-familiar big surprise. One of the problems is that we have come to care about the characters enough that we really don’t like what we see happening. It’s not an ironic but appropriate wrap-up, it’s unpleasant and distancing.

The supporting cast is well-chosen. Len Cariou is the local sheriff, given to needlepoint to relieve his arthritic pains. Turturro looks like he’s just changed clothes between the sets of “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Secret Window.” He’s ripely rural and creepily menacing. Bello capably suggests that if things changed just a little, she might rejoin her husband. Hutton is both testy and embarrassed by his position. Charles S. Dutton has a good little bit in his office as he and Depp test each other by means of a chess timer. We should have seen more of him, and perhaps in earlier cuts, we did.

It’s not quite a horror movie, and is fairly tame (PG-13) for a thriller. It’s often entertaining to just watch, with well-staged moments of suspense, but at times gives evidence of having been ruthlessly recut. (At one point, Koepp strongly emphasizes a shot of Depp balancing a glass at the edge of a table—but we never see the glass again.)

“Secret Window” is much better made and more entertaining overall than “Twisted,” but suffers from the same crippling flaw: we’ve all been there, done this way too often.

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