At their worst, remakes appeal to popular laziness and an unwillingness to read subtitles, submerge into foreign cultures, or watch older films with slower editing. Although it’s easy to blame Hollywood for this supposed sacrilege, the remake can be effective at commenting on different contexts: old stories seen from new perspectives.
Earlier this year, Poltergeist, which resembled the original in many ways, presented a compelling portrayal of an updated nuclear family. The conscious deviations from the source material changed the meaning by playing off of different contemporary anxieties. The best remakes hardly remake. They adapt. They alter. They submerge deeper into different but related ideas.
Enter The Secret In Their Eyes, a beloved and riveting Argentinian film that won the Best Foreign Language film Oscar in 2010. After great critical success within its domestic borders, the film broke box-office records and garnered critical acclaim. Nothing solidifies a song’s cultural impact like a Weird Al Yankovic parody, and, similarly, the only thing left to crystallize The Secret In Their Eyes’ reputation was an American mockery.
But, to be fair, the Billy Ray film, which features an all-star cast including Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is less unintentional parody than shallow imitation, capturing the essence of the plot but doing little to explore its implications.
Secret In Their Eyes is like buying a pie only to eat the crust. The story, disguised as a whodunit, is actually an examination of cultural hysteria from the past. Without the gelatin inside, crust isn’t a pie. Without its deeper themes, The Secret In Their Eyes isn’t the same film. Where the original took place during the Dirty War in Argentina, and imagined its effects years later, this remake, set amidst the madness after 9/11, hardly traces the impact on the characters a decade later.
Taking place in two separate timelines and jumping back and forth to fill in gaps as it goes along, the movie traces a group of counter-terrorism investigators who get wrapped up in a homicide case when an investigator’s daughter is found dead in a dumpster near a surveilled mosque. Years later, agent Ray (Ejiofor), who feels partially responsible for the murder, approaches Jess (Roberts), the girl’s mother, and Claire (Kidman), an old love-interest and the new DA, with a lead.
This story, which plays like a cliched procedural, is not about the whos, whats, whens, or whys. In the original film, we’re less concerned with solving the case than with the characters’ hysteria. Evidence may be elusive, but there are reasons behind the characters’ behaviours. To decipher them is to solve the real mystery, one of paranoid human nature.
Certainly, these elements are decipherable in this remake; it is engraved into the very core of the narrative. But judging purely from the performances, cinematography, and production design, there is hardly a hint of profundity, merely A-list actors (all of whom give strong performances except Julia Roberts, who is awkwardly miscast) naturally reading their lines in bland compositions and spaces. There is no atmosphere, no lurking dread, and no sense that 9/11 has anything to do with the story. It often plays like a high-production value variant of a mediocre procedural, not an introspection into recent history.
Remakes are not readymades. You can’t simply take a plot, recast actors and quickly slap it all together. Good remakes consider their alterations; they are conscious of how reimagining context changes meaning. Doing little detective work on its altered setting and time period, the new Secret In Their Eyes is searching for the wrong evidence.