Secret Window Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    Secret Window Review
    I reviewed this movie quite some time ago for a different site and I recall being somewhat disappointed with it first time around. But, in the ensuing years I have found myself drawn back to it more and more. There is something about its unique atmosphere that puts it in the “cosy menace” mould of some of the older horror/thrillers from yesteryear that I love so much. There may be death and suspense clogging up the proceedings but the air of the film remains darkly upbeat and strangely comfortable, despite the insanity coursing through it. Many have cited David Koepp's adaptation of Stephen King's short story “Secret Window, Secret Garden” as little more than a single-beat scenario plainly stretched out to a feature-film length that it possibly didn't warrant. Well, fair dues, I suppose. But to have added anything more to the quick-witted yet insular plot would have been to rob of its vital essence - that of Johnny Depp's beleaguered scribe, Mort Rainey, shutting himself off from a world he sees as cruel and vindictive and out to get him.

    “You stole my story ...”

    Painfully and unsuccessfully coming to terms with the fact that his wife Amy (Maria Bello) has run off with another man, played by Timothy Hutton, Mort retires to what should have been their summer house to work on his latest book beside a wonderfully spectral lake. But, even worse than the writer's block that sees his floor littered with screwed-up balls of paper and a word-processor that is getting used to deleting the same paragraph over and over again, is the sudden and menacing arrival of a stranger on his doorstep claiming that Mort had stolen his story and had it published under his own name. John Shooter, played with black-eyes and a cold heart by John Turturro demands that Mort show him proof that he did indeed write the story first and gives him three days to come up with the evidence or else he will exact some old school revenge for being wronged. The ensuing three days become a nightmare for Mort, as arson and murder become as regular as the clock ticking away towards the deadline. In desperation he hires a private detective to keep watch over him and even deter Shooter from returning, but his nemesis appears to have uncanny abilities to circumvent his defences and steely determination to put Mort through the wringer.

    Admittedly slight, the narrative of Secret Window still travels with enough momentum to keep the attention, fitting in little vignettes of suspense and disquiet every now and then that build up to a teasingly palpable sense of the macabre. Mort's fears become mixed with guilt over a prior indiscretion and when events seem to conspire against him actually producing of the evidence that will get him off the hook this time around, he sees persecution and enemies everywhere. If you haven't seen the film then it would be unfair for me to discuss anymore of the plot, sufficed to say that it twists and turns like a snake and delivers a neatly poetic bite at the end that recalls some of the work of the raw psychosis of Edgar Allan Poe's fiction.

    “Won't do you no good to play games with me, Mr. Rainey. This has got to be settled.”

    The concept of a lone protagonist cut off from reality both psychologically and geographically is always a potent one. Koepp's handling of King's premise is nothing if not acutely aware of this fact. The summer house may be out in the sticks but as far as Mort's sense of human connection goes, it may as well be on the surface of the moon. And, with this in mind, Mort's war with Shooter is only part of his plight. His own irascible, self-centred character is the main enemy he must overcome. Purposely retreating to the cabin to hide away and sulk, his susceptibility to the stranglehold mania of writer's block, jealousy, bitterness and fear is hardly surprising. Most of King's writer characters contrive to wind up in tortured isolation, from Jack Torrence in The Shining's Overlook Hotel to Paul Sheldon in another cabin in Misery, and even John Cusack's supernatural debunker Mike in 1408. The loneliness of the diligently creative mind is also the fertile playground of the imagination, thus this type of scenario becomes endlessly stocked with devious, often maniacal potential. The best screen depiction of one man succumbing to madness whilst trapped in a lonely cabin has got to be that of Bruce Campbell's long-suffering Ash in Evil Dead II, but the idea is still delightfully slotted in here and played out with insidious skill by Johnny Depp. The assorted trips and meetings that Mort makes throughout his ordeal - even in the big city - still feel like extensions of his own paranoid mental wanderings despite the broad daylight and hustle and bustle going on around him. The successful protraction of this pensive and unsettled tone is where the film proves eminently rewarding. Koepp manages to balance the brevity of the story with the creeping sensation that all is not right even when Mort and Amy sit uncomfortably side by side in the office of their lawyers to discuss the dividing up of belongings. The clever thing is that we only ever associate with Mort regardless of whoever else is around. Of course, Johnny Depp's magnetism is the obvious main reason for this, but we mustn't short-change Koepp either who uses his camera to snoop and cower, prowl and swirl around the admittedly limited locations, drawing you into the drama of Mort's escalating dilemma like a moth to a flame.

    “You strike me as the kind of guy who's on the lookout for a head he can knock off with a shovel.”

    John Turturro is an extremely versatile actor, who continually spreads his wings and embraces a new collection of nuances. Hard-as-nails, yet still quite gawkily vulnerable in To Live And Die In LA; fragile, confused and imbalanced in Barton Fink; a two-faced weasel in Miller's Crossing, who can switch from devious self-centred manipulator to terrified, brink-of-death plea-bargainer in the effortless blink of an eye; fabulously serious and confidently gung-ho tenpin bowler in The Big Lebowski and comical cameo stooge in Transformers - he's leapt into a wide variety of roles and given them all that specially crafted Turturro-twist. But whilst the Coen brothers have made the most of his talents over the years, Koepp finds a darker dimension again to Turturro's assemblage of characterisations that, whilst not as far-reaching a creation as some of these other examples, is definitely memorable. As the wronged writer John Shooter, Turturro combines two thriller archetypes into one demonic persona. His old school Mormonistic fashion sense and Deep South drawl evoke memories of Robert Mitchum's bad-boy preacher in Night Of The Hunter come a-calling once more. His bogeyman-esque ability to pop up anywhere, anytime and deliver blood-chilling ultimatums is pure noir villainy. Rolled up into the initially odd-ball and somewhat un-threatening authorship-rival, these elements make Shooter a grade-A loony with old country retribution on his mind. As daft as he may look, Turturro's monster, bedecked in simple hand-me-down suit and broad-brimmed colonial land-tiller's hat, possesses a grip of iron and the strength of bear. In many ways he is like a bumpkin Terminator - unstoppable in his conviction that Mort has stolen from him, remorseless in his almost biblically-wrought terrorising of him and systematic in his defeat of every retaliatory step that Mort makes. Turturro essays a great lurking presence at the periphery of the film's otherwise comprehensive single-character dissection.

    “The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story. And this one ... is very good. This one is perfect.”

    Whilst the rest of the cast acquit themselves in perfunctory manner - they all play second or even third fiddle to Depp's screentime-devouring part - the film still feels nicely rounded. Charles S. Dutton's private eye rolls in like Joe Don Baker's similar would-be saviour in Scorsese's Cape Fear but lacks the gravity and bravado for us to feel much in either empathy or reassurance. Hutton's smarmy wife-snatcher supplies some reality-checking now and then but stops short of making him either likeable or hissable. And as Mort's estranged wife, Bello seems to keep a tight lid on emotions, again leaving space for Depp to dominate. As a thriller Secret Window lacks any degree of hard-edged threat, but that is not the style that Koepp is aiming for. Quite clearly, the film is not intending us to take it seriously. Many people have complained that the comedic tone of Depp's performance tilts the film in a direction that is too daft and forgettable, citing that it makes the story largely far too easy to dismiss. Well, I can see their point. Certainly if you watch Secret Window hoping to be scared or thrilled by any of it, then you are going to be disappointed. The mood remains playful and mysterious even when sundry murders have been committed, and Mort's escalating paranoia becomes something to savour rather than to shirk. Depp's inhabiting of the role is mischievous and Machiavellian. He is a slobbish hero, reluctant, grating and inhospitable. Yet his cantankerous, embittered nature is exactly the thing that hooks us. Little asides that Depp throws in - jolted by a vehicle suddenly speeding past him; smirking with smug victory at his little blind dog Chico when he successfully manages to snaffle a forbidden cigarette from under his housekeeper's nose; goading his love-rival with flippantly-dispatched sarcasm (“Rubbernecker!”); his personal thoughts communicated to us via a tentative voiceover - that bring him to life. His idiosyncrasies are even stretched in the face of danger - “I don't respond well to intimidation,” he declares, “makes me feel ... icky!” Tiny flecks of Jack Sparrow may stow aboard his characterisation of Mort, but such quirky embellishments are always welcome as far as I am concerned.

    Mention must go to Depp's hair, too. Most definitely a character in its own right, his copious thatch is forever on the move - a mess, an unruly tangle, a follicular extension of Mort's own jumbled psyche, perhaps? Whatever its unmanageable motivations may be, it swamps his head with the twisted double intentions of both protecting it and, seemingly, eating it. There is a gorgon-like quality to his barnet that makes you immediately wary, if not of the person beneath, then surely of the snake-like foliage itself. Even when Mort buries it under his woolly cap, the impression is of a caged beast. Crazy notion, I know ... but it is a great addition to the character.

    “ Oh, I'm already confused, Pilgrim. Plenty confused. So don't talk to me about confusion.”

    Mort's grasp on reality gets shakier and shakier.

    Secret Window doesn't have a great many hidden depths, but it does coast by on the performances of its leads and the slyly probing nature of its deluded atmosphere. And as far as King adaptations go, it is certainly a step up from the usual lesser-acclaimed offerings from his extensive catalogue and remains surprisingly faithful to the original story. Some say the film glosses over its threadbare narrative with unnecessary visual aplomb - such as the shock cliff-top wakeup call for Mort - but the story leaves ample room for such showy, slick-looking instances. Even Philip Glass's score generates a little more warmth than his usually minimalist music allows, creating a moody and evocative tone that suits the weirdness of the film splendidly. So, Secret Window gets a thumbs-up from me. It's comfortably quirky, supremely well-shot and showcases another commanding performance from Johnny Depp. What the film may lack in vigour it makes up for in stylish slow-burn tension-building and in its depiction of an all-too-eager mind on the verge of meltdown. Recommended.

    The Rundown

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