‘Secret in their Eyes’
Director:
Billy Ray
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The 2009 Argentine thriller “Secret in their Eyes” is the kind of movie where confident direction — and, for American viewers, the presence of subtitles — help distract from what would be a distractingly inane plot. It had pretensions, even noble ones, exploring grief and vengeance in a world now locked in a moral gray zone. Its remake is even more lofty. It bears three acclaimed actors and an esteemed writer-director, on top of being an adaptation of an Oscar-winning picture. But it still plays like a dodgy cop show. Cast it with William Petersen and it might not seem so prestigious.

Instead it stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who always gives his all, even if it’s the ludicrous doomsday what-if “2012.” He’s Ray, a former anti-terrorist agent who when we meet him has spent 13 years obsessing over a murder-rape case involving the daughter of a colleague, Tess (a de-make-upped Julia Roberts). The probable assailant went off the grid, and when Ray thinks he’s at long last found him, it triggers an intricate latticework of flashbacks to 2002, gradually catching us up to speed and, less charitably, distracting us from the silliness of its logic.

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“Secret in their Eyes” tries hard, even righteously to do good. Its hopscotching structure shows how tragedy forever dooms its victims, even those who survive, to live forever in the past. Even framing it in the wake of 9/11 among agents investigating mosques can be defended: the entire story serves as a metaphor and critique of sloppily and thoughtlessly seeking revenge while wrestling with insurmountable despair. Throughout Ejiofor, with his unfailingly sincere face, anguishes mightily, while Roberts disappears inside an unreadably blank facade. (Nicole Kidman’s in there too, mostly fending off a puppy dog crush from Ray but doing so with elan.)

It’s also a movie that forces Ejiofor to shout, Dirty Harry knockoff-style, with an intransigent boss (Alfred Molina) and shake down a guy with a barbell to the neck. People say things like, “Is this how you do things in New York?” and Ray tries to sound badass by cooing to a perp, “Yeah, f—head, I’m the guy who took your comic book.” (It’s like “Zero Dark Thirty”’s “I’m the motherf—er that found this place” but written for basement-dwelling nerds.) Filmmaker Billy Ray made the cool-headed “Shattered Glass” and “Breach,” but “Secret” usually looks and plays like a bad episode of “CSI,” only starring actors whose shelves are stocked with awards. By the end it becomes another lowly genre: the twist-a-thon, complete with a battering ram montage of older scenes replayed, now with a new nudge-nudgey context.

But it never loses sight of its deeper side. It’s a draw — a thriller that’s stupid in its particulars but still haunted by real ghosts. Scenes where Tess flashes back (sometimes within another flashback) to time spent with her lively daughter (Zoe Graham) have a subtle force because they feel lived-in, as though they were real scenes from a different, happier movie. And the climactic twist (twists, actually — it’s that kind of move too) isn’t just a cheap gotcha but something that builds off and deepens the horror that’s already come. It could easily have been a brainless time-killer; instead it aims for up the skies. It doesn’t get there, but it tries.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge