Secret in Their Eyes is a remake of the 2009 Argentinian Oscar winning film of the same name (sans the word "The" for some reason). It's a smart, tragic story with a killer ending based on a great novel (The Question in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri), but fans of the original won't discover anything special about the Hollywood remake. The thing is, American audiences, who seem allergic to subtitles, won't know the difference and will likely enjoy this middling thriller with an all-star cast.
Secret in Their Eyes flashes back and forth between two time periods. Jess (Julia Roberts) is a Los Angeles cop who's lost the light in her eyes. 13 years earlier her daughter was raped and murdered and Jess has never been the same. In flashback, we see how she used to be: happy and sharp-tongued. When she and her partner, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), discover the body, their lives are changed forever.
In the present, Ray works security for the New York Mets, but he's been obsessing over the crime since it happened. A breakthrough sends him back to L.A. where he reunites with old colleague Claire (Nicole Kidman), now a District Attorney, as well as Jess. Determined to solve the case and put these demons to rest, they embark on a mission that sacrifices morality for justice.
While the film plods along, reveling in the past (when we know nothing is solved), it's carried by Roberts. Her descent into grief is heartbreaking and the film's big dramatic sequence, besides the twist ending. The actress pulls off the wounded mother and then some, showing a vulnerability and anger we haven't seen from her before. Ejiofor, while solid as usual, is nonetheless unremarkable as Ray, a virtual everyman who could use a little more toughness. Kidman, for her part, is typically excellent. Her character grows exponentially between the two periods and the actress finds both gears easily. The female characters change significantly from past to present and it's a credit to Roberts and Kidman that they remain believable. It's also just fun seeing them share scenes for the first time.
Writer/director Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) makes many significant changes from the original film. Where the Argentinian movie is set against the war waged by the junta in the early '80s, the remake takes place in 2001 when L.A. was on high alert as a potential target after September 11. Also, the Jess character is a man (the victim's husband) in the original so the dynamic is much different.
The most significant change, however, is in the overall tone and impact of the film. Where the original was filled with symbolism and important themes, the remake is cinematically empty. Jess can be viewed as a microcosm of the thousands of 9/11 mourners, but that's about it. Ray opts for a straight ahead procedural for the most part, which doesn't distinguish the story from many TV shows made today. It's most recent theatrical comparison is probably Mystic River, another film about a grieving parent looking to avenge a daughter's death. But Secret in Their Eyes lacks that film's singular mood and overall mystery.
In the end, however, Ray's movie makes for a watchable thriller thanks to the cast. I would suggest to those interested to seek out the 2009 original first, but this is America. People want to see big stars and the remake certainly has that. Carried by Roberts and Kidman, the story is still compelling though forgettable.