NOW SHOWING: Secret Window

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2004

There is a vast difference between movies that should be made because the stories they have to tell demand visual treatment, and movies that will be made because somebody can capitalize on the latest big thing. Secret Window, and movies like it, would seem to be that rare brand of film that bridges the gap: a good story, imminently marketable. Unfortunately for the audience, Window does more to broaden that chasm than close it and proves once again that the quest for the almighty dollar will always supercede good art.

Johnny Depp, the latest big thing in question, plays tortured writer Mort Rainey, a broken man who has lived and worked alone in his remote cabin in upstate New York ever since catching his wife and her lover in a flea-bag, not-tell motel out by the interstate. Things aren't going well for old Mort. He sleeps all the time, can't stop thinking about the love he lost, and now, worst of all, he can't seem to write either. Early in the film, Rainey erases the single paragraph he has written so far, with the words "No bad writing." For a while, the film echoes this sentiment, but eventually, as does Rainey, it stumbles, falters, and finally crashes into messy heap. What spurs on Rainey's demise, and to some extent, that of the movie, is the appearance of a mysterious stranger, John Shooter, who claims that Rainey has stolen his story. The stolen story in question, Secret Window, one of murder and betrayal, was written ten years previously, and though Mort does his best to convince the agitated Mr. Shooter that he is mistaken, things start to go wrong very quickly.

Actually, this is a big part of the problem. Secret Window, based on a short story by Stephen King, a man not always known for his subtlety, nevertheless has room for it. But, instead of a quiet, creepy approach the madness and death to come, the film dives into it with gusto and abandon. Secrets that should take the audience a whole movie to realize, become apparent relatively early on, and after that it's just a string of violent encounters, each more horrifying than the last. It's this rush to terror that really exemplifies the typical Hollywood inability to have their cake and eat it too.

The role of Mort Rainey could have been played by anyone. There is very little there that requires an actor of any depth. That said, Johnny Depp, truly the best thing about this film, brings to the character a quirky exasperation that makes him more interesting than his surroundings, and keeps you holding on throughout the movie. However, even Depp falls prey to the over exuberance of the final half, becoming more ham and less Hamlet. John Turturro, another excellent actor, brings less subtlety to his role as the psychopathic hillbilly John Shooter. His slow, menacing speech patterns work well at first, but soon become slightly grating. He, as well as cuddly tough guy Charles S. Dutton are wasted in essentially flat roles. Timothy Hutton is similarly spent, saddled with an obvious southern accent and given little to do but posture as Mrs. Rainey's lover, Ted. Secret Window is, then, yet another example that great actors do not a great movie necessarily make.

So what is the problem? Simply put, the writers don't give the audience enough credit. Everything is laid out on a silver platter, and then repeated in case you didn't get it. Moviegoers today are savvier than the studios think. Movies like Secret Window are in direct opposition with films like Nicole Kidman's The Others a few years back. That was a scary story that didn't pander and yielded great performances and huge box office receipts. Sadly, movies like that are few and far between. Instead, Hollywood thinks that it's all got to be spelled out, that audiences are little more than brain dead fourth graders who must be told what to think and how to feel. Secret Window, though slick and pedigreed, falls into that tradition.

This movie may give Johnny Depp, a man who shunned the mainstream spotlight until recently, pause to think about his career path. Pirates of the Caribbean was a smash hit, garnering Depp the respect he has so long deserved and the opportunity to play any role he wants. Hopefully he'll be careful and not fall for this film's false-prophetic catchphrase, "The ending is all that matters." The ending is most certainly not all that matters, and when you flat tell the audience that the one you have is very, very good, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Grade: C+

Secret Window is rated PG-13 despite having rampant brutal violence. Though most of the gore is only quickly shown, this rating is yet another example of the ratings board's rampant hypocrisy when it comes to box office potential. Johnny Depp is a hugely marketable star. It doesn't really matter what the story is, so long as your core audience of 13-18 year olds are able to spend their money.

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