The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Quentin Tarantino, few storylines satisfy audiences as perennially as seeing a good guy give a bad guy what’s coming to him. One of the funniest skits Saturday Night Live ever did was an alternate ending to It’s a Wonderful Life where the townsfolk of Bedford Falls get together to kick around Mr. Potter. The skit’s writers understood that, deep in our hearts, that’s what we really wanted to see happen.
But aside from the fact that most of cinema’s retribution-dealing heroes have a certain lonely cynicism (which, let’s face it, looks more cool than troubling), movies rarely depict the personal cost of vengeance. While it has some deep flaws, a new drama starring Julia Roberts, Secret in Their Eyes, is one of the few movies to present what could be considered a biblical view on revenge.
Set in 2001, shortly after 9/11, Jess (Julia Roberts) and her partner, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are counterterrorism agents investigating an LA mosque. They’ve cultivated a certain gallows-humor approach to their work that gives them distance from the bloodshed they often witness. Then they’re confronted with a crime too horrific, too personal, to view clinically: A terrorist informer rapes and murders Jess’ teenage daughter. As if this weren’t gut-wrenching enough, Jess must watch the killer go unpunished—he’s too valuable to the FBI’s task force. By letting him carry on with his spying, the task force could save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
In most other movies this would be the perfect setup to see the protagonists flout rules and burn bridges to mete out justice. And it is here, as well. As Jess’ closest friend, Ray is as committed to bringing down her daughter’s murderer as she is, and the first half of the movie follows his dogged, 13-year investigation. Little by little, however, the tone shifts. We start to question Ray’s judgment. His recklessness stops seeming noble and starts seeming obsessive. Claire (Nicole Kidman), a prosecutor and Ray’s love interest, wants to help him, but it becomes increasingly evident that Ray is less interested in justice than he is in revenge.
The unconsummated romance between the married Claire and Ray makes up the weakest part of the plot, and Secret in Their Eyes would be a much better movie if it had cut this element entirely to make more room for Julia Roberts’ stunning performance as Jess. Sometimes, certain movie stars grow so iconic, you forget the talent that put them on the map in the first place. Roberts reminds us here as an aching, tormented mother who clings to the past.
Though largely a witness to the film’s activity, Jess’ character arc provides the movie’s main theme, echoing Ray’s emotional journey in starker contrasts. It would take a miraculous work of the heart for a woman in Jess’ position to offer forgiveness to the man who so brutally ended her daughter’s life. Yet in failing to offer it, Jess grows more and more hollow, and less and less of a full person. Ultimately, there is nothing left to her personality but bitterness and barely contained fury.
Inexplicably, the MPAA gave this film a PG-13 rating rather than the R the language and some extremely disturbing scenes of the primary crime deserve. The content doesn’t feel gratuitous, and it serves to bring us into Jess’ pain in a way that mere dialogue couldn’t, but it isn’t something I’d want my young teenager seeing.
But for viewers who can tolerate the upsetting though realistic images, Secret deftly twists into something more insightful than a standard revenge thriller. It subtly suggests that God doesn’t claim vengeance for Himself to deprive us something we deserve, but to relieve us of a burden that is too much for our shortsighted, unholy shoulders to bear.
Listen to Megan Bashman review The Secret in Their Eyes on The World and Everything in It.