Julia Roberts certainly knows how to supply a showstopping clip for the Academy’s consideration. As FBI agent Jess in “Secret in Their Eyes,” she arrives at a murder scene only to find that the dead body lying face down in a dumpster is her teen daughter. It’s a horrifying scenario, and Roberts doesn’t act so much as lay bare a mother’s unthinkable, nearly unwatchable anguish. She screams, sobs, pleads and throws herself into the bin to cradle her girl one last time.
It’s enough to take your breath away. It’s also the only memorable moment in a movie that transforms thrilling source material — the 2009 Argentinian movie that won an Oscar for best foreign film — into a straightforward procedural better suited for prime-time television.
The movie opens — a dozen years after that murder — with an all-too-familiar image: Former FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) burns the midnight oil, scanning mugshots on his computer screen. Ray’s tormented expression, the shadowy interior and the score’s sinister piano and strings are like items on a checklist: A mystery is afoot, and here’s the guy to solve it. Once Ray sees the face he’s searching for, he heads to Los Angeles to visit his old friend Claire (Nicole Kidman), who recently became district attorney. He has tracked down the killer of Jess’s daughter, and he wants to reopen the case, he tells her. From there, the movie jumps back and forth in time.
It turns out that Jess and Ray used to be partners, and she was a real live wire, constantly teasing him about his obvious crush on the new prosecutor, Claire. But all that changed in 2002 after they found Jess’s daughter, Carolyn, dead near a shady mosque the partners had been casing. In the then-new post-9/11 world, Ray and Jess were expected to focus on exposing a sleeper cell, but Ray instead became obsessed with finding Carolyn’s killer. Meanwhile, their superiors begin growing testy, especially once the prime suspect is identified as an FBI informant embedded within the mosque.
Director Billy Ray, who adapted the script, does a fine job of weaving many threads together without creating a confusing jumble. Costumes and makeup help to differentiate the eras: Ray is graying at the temples in the later scenes and Claire has cut and colored her hair. But Jess is the most obviously changed. In the years following her daughter’s death, she has become a cipher. She drifts in and out of view, her face devoid of color and her drab hair pulled back in a ponytail. (Roberts even wore contacts to cloud her usually stunning eyes.) “You look a million years old,” Ray tells her at one point.
Roberts works hard to convey her miserable emptiness, but she can’t overcome the fact that Kidman appears to have forgotten to show up for work at all. The movie’s emotional core rests not only on Jess’s loss, but also on the unresolved feelings between Ray and the married Claire. There’s supposedly some powerful spark between them — but there’s nothing electric about Kidman, and it looks like Ejiofor is unleashing professions of passion on a cardboard cutout.
As the movie wears on, the plot points become increasingly far-fetched, and what started out as a moody if by-the-book thriller becomes increasingly silly. All the while, Roberts gives her all. “My daughter was the thing that made me me,” she says, and the way her voice just barely begins to break tells us so much about the depths of suffering. But by then her brilliance only draws attention to how unworthy the movie is of her efforts.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains discussions about disturbing violence, strong language and some sexual references. 111 minutes.