How do you catch a killer? Why, you start by turning to a convenient photo of him staring longingly at the victim, of course. That’s the kind of gumshoeing we get in the A-list casted remake Secret in Their Eyes. An American adaptation of the wildly successful 2009 Argentine murder mystery is no surprise, given that El Secreto de Sus Ojos won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Billy Ray’s film (his third overall and his first since penning the script for Captain Phillips and co-writing The Hunger Games) has no shortage of Oscar-caliber talent, its leads played by Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Unfortunately, any artistic aspirations are dashed when this paint-by-numbers mystery unfolds far too easily and stoops to the most heavy-handed contrivances of genre fare.

Secret opens with a murder. A young woman’s body is found in a dumpster, stripped naked and scrubbed with bleach—inside and out, the film repeatedly points out—to destroy any DNA evidence from the preceding rape. The usual gallows humor candor among the investigators shatters when Ray (Ejiofor) takes a peek into the dumpster and realizes that the victim is the college-age daughter of Jess (Roberts), his FBI colleague who’s yukking it up only a few feet away. Soon Jess is in the dumpster too, contaminating the crime scene as she wails and cradles her murdered child. Back at the office Ray quickly spots a suspicious figure in a large photo taken at the bureau picnic, and he works with rising attorney Claire (Kidman) to form a strategy to capture the young man whose secretive eyes stare so longingly at Jess’s daughter.

That Ray can immediately spot the killer from a photo is, of course, preposterous, but that detail was lifted straight from the original film, based on a novel by Argentine author Eduardo Sacheri. But the liberties taken by this remake push an already unlikely scenario way over the top. The film jumps back and forth between two timelines 13 years apart, helpfully demarcating the two periods by changes to the characters’ hair—Ray’s goes salt and pepper, Jess’s gets more dowdy, Claire’s gets shorter and wisecracking fellow investigator Bumpy’s (Dean Norris) disappears completely. These parallel storylines show us the feverish manhunt for the cocky suspect (Joe Cole) and the 13-years removed revisiting of the cold case when Ray (now a private sector security officer who continues to scour nearly 2,000 mugshots a night searching for one that matches the killer) happens upon that needle in the haystack.

The problem is that the entire film is Ray sticking his hand into haystacks and immediately pulling out needles. Besides the hunch he has about the convenient photo, the earlier timeline has Ray and Bumpy infiltrating the killer’s house without a warrant and lifting a comic book their suspect drew himself, only to deduce that the names used in it all somehow relate to former Los Angeles Dodgers players from the team’s golden era. Without any indication that the killer would be there, they head to a Dodgers game where they comb each row looking for him. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s there! He’s brought into custody and he denies everything, but Claire sexually taunts him into whipping out his dong, thereby proving that he must be a murderer. But head honcho Morales (Alfred Molina) pours cold water over the whole investigation because the killer just so happens to be a snitch from a local mosque that (this being 2002) can lead the bureau to a huge sleeper cell of al-Qaeda terrorists conspiring to attack Los Angeles.

One is left to wonder how, with all the pieces falling so easily into place, it took the obsessive Ray 13 years to once again track down the killer. But the present day timeline is packed full of happy coincidences as well (the suspect has a weird thing for thoroughbred horses so, boom, there he is petting one at the local race track). Meanwhile, Ray’s unrequited love for Claire (now a powerful district attorney) is revisited, and we get a hammy romantic sub-plot while an increasingly frumpy Jess seems to want nothing to do with Ray and Claire’s renewed interest in the case.

Even the far superior (but still flawed) Argentine original leans too heavily on a clever twist ending. That ending is repeated here, and it’s effective enough, but not worth sitting through the preceding 100 minutes. Changing the killer to an American Muslim is simply unfortunate, especially given the fever pitch of today’s venomous anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Secret showcases relatively strong acting performances (other than Roberts, who seems woefully miscast) that can do little to make the preposterous mystery plot compelling. As so often happens in films that rely on genre conventions above character development, the plot fuels all action and we don’t get a chance to see any of these characters as fleshed-out people. They are born in 2002, investigating a murder that’s forever scarred their lives, and they die as the credits roll in the present day. The problem is, if they’re going to exist solely to move a plot, Secret in Their Eyes gives them an awfully silly one.

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