Fans of Julia Roberts better look early in “Secret in Their Eyes” for that famous toothy smile.
It disappears about 15 minutes in, after Jess, the federal investigator she plays, discovers that the dead and sexually abused body in a dumpster is her daughter.
Jess’ heartwrenching discovery – parent alert here – sets the stage for this problematic but suspenseful thriller set in Los Angeles. The film co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ray, a former colleague who returns to Los Angeles 13 years later with a new lead in the case, and Nicole Kidman as Claire, a former supervisor who is now district attorney.
The film, directed by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games,” “Captain Phillips”), with Roberts’ husband, Danny Moder, as cinematographer, is a loose remake of an Argentinian film that won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Ray, who barrels back into Jess and Claire’s lives confident he’s found the killer, is the film’s life force. He has to overcome Jess’ reticence, and convince Claire it’s a winnable pursuit. But there’s a complication: It’s a year after 9/11, and the suspect is being used in an undercover investigation to crack a terrorist sleeper cell, so authorities are loath to let anything else get in the way.
That doesn’t stop Ray, but poor editing – not usually a topic in reviews – may prevent the viewer from knowing whether they’re watching a scene in 2002 or 2015, as the film shifts continually between the two, with the actors looking the same in both periods.
Neither A-list actress is given a lot to do. Roberts’ makeup-less Jess is a shattered ghost of her former self, making it hard to believe she can continue to function as an FBI agent in such a debilitated state.
Kidman presents an icy facade, which begins to thaw during scenes that address the unrequited love between her and Ray. But those interactions are never allowed to go anywhere. Each conversation that begins to reopen the past is inevitably and maddeningly interrupted by a person, phone call or text message.
As if to compensate, Ejiofor, with most of the film time, overacts at times, projecting passion and determination in pursuit of justice delayed.
The film, at its worst, feels like a TV crime thriller, and one can’t help but wish for more with such a good cast and story to work with.
But that doesn’t mean “Secret in Their Lives” lacks for suspense.
There are exciting pursuits and near-misses, including chase scenes at a horse track and in Dodger Stadium. In the film’s most gripping scene, a seething Kidman all-but eviscerates a suspect after he mentally undresses her in an interrogation room.
The plot also thickens with a surprise ending it’s doubtful many will see coming.
Secret In Their Eyes
Starring: Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman
Director: Billy ray
Running time: 111 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing violent content, language, sexual references
The Lowdown: A new lead develops into the brutal murder of an FBI agent’s teenage daughter.