Sony // 2004 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // July 26th, 2004
"Won't do you no good to play games with me, Mr. Rainey. This has got to be settled."
There are terrible things to be accused of in your lifetime -- adultery, substance abuse, psychotic delusions -- but for a writer, there's truly no greater affront than to be accused of plagiarism. In Secret Window, successful but now slovenly author Morton "Mort" Rainey has been accused of all of the above, unexpectedly confronted by an imposing figure in a wide-brim hat with a relentless drive for restitution in light of Rainey's apparent unforgivable transgression. And this all unfolds before breakfast. Not a good start to the day.
Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl) is hardly the embodiment of glamour or success, he being the well-published author who once made his home in the heart of a New England-style suburb yet is now relegated to an increasingly disheveled retreat perched along the banks of Tashmore Lake. Having caught his wife, Amy (Maria Bello, Coyote Ugly), in bed with another man in a seedy roadside motel, the divorce was inevitable but is proving to have a spiraling impact on the increasingly recluse writer who can't seem to get past the first paragraph of his new book. A despondent heart and extreme case of writer's block become the least of Rainey's problems, though, when malevolent Mississippian John Shooter (John Turturro, Anger Management) rattles the author's world, not to mention his front door, to proclaim "you stol' ma' story." Seems Shooter had written a manuscript entitled "The Secret Window" and claims Rainey's recently published short tale of the same name is damned near a word-for-word copy. "This has got to be settled," Shooter warns. Now, Rainey has become trapped in his own lakeside hideaway, Shooter seemingly always lurking nearby and becoming dangerously more violent, threatening not only Rainey but also his estranged wife and anyone else the hapless writer turns to for help. The worst, however, has yet to be revealed as Shooter has an even darker purpose that threatens to reveal a darker truth, one that would shatter Rainey's increasingly fragile existence.
I just love a good suspense yarn, one that offers well-developed characters, intertwined yet conflicting motivations, and a payoff that backhands you solid in the face when you least expect it. Secret Window, by that criteria, succeeds reasonably well; not stunningly, mind you, but engaging all the same. Adapted from a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, writer/director David Koepp manages to deliver one of the better screen treatments of a King work (and, yes, I'm still overcome by the gag reflex whenever I think of 2003's deplorable snow job, Dreamcatcher). Koepp was clever enough to realize that another narrative about an agonized writer (criminy, where have I heard that one before?) could deteriorate quickly if he failed to get Rainey away from the computer fast (who wants to watch even Johnny Depp type?) and get into the meat of the story. Within minutes of the opening credits, the confrontation between Rainey and Shooter begins and we begin scratching our heads to figure out if the writer really cribbed from this mad hatter's idea. In short order, we're in a bit of an uneasy conundrum as we want to side with this sympathetic character of Rainey who's being mercilessly pursued by the frightening Shooter yet aren't completely certain that the writer hadn't perhaps been tempted to plagiarize from the engrossing tale of a man who harbors a dark secret deep in his secret garden accessible only through the secret window of his troubled soul. How 'bout that -- all this "secret" talk and I still haven't served up a single spoiler.
The film works well to keep our attention though not solely because of a tight script. Yes, the plot is well constructed and offers plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings to snack on along the way but I suppose the cast plays a key role in assuring our interest for the full 96 minutes. Now, I can't completely agree with the key casting choice of Johnny Depp in the role of mundane Mort Rainey; he (Depp) seems to be on dangerous ground now, beginning to upstage the very roles he plays. While there's no argument that the boy-man can act, his very presence and personage seems to distract me from seeing the character instead of the actor. Frankly, I envisioned Rainey to be more of a non-descript doof, not much at all like the angular, piercing-eye Depp. To his credit, though, it's good to see a performer of his pop stature take on less glamorous roles (especially considering he sported a very convincing writer's bed-head coif' throughout this picture). Hats off (pun intended) to the imposing John Turturro as the perverse pilgrim, John Shooter, who delivers a relentless performance and one that provides the required squirm factor to keep you appropriately unsettled throughout the picture. While I was unimpressed with the shallow characterization of Amy, leaving little to be said about Maria Bello's work here, Timothy Hutton (The Dark Half) is on hand as the homewrecker, Ted, playing the grating third-wheel quite well.
Columbia TriStar has delivered Secret Window in a reasonable presentation on DVD. The widescreen anamorphic transfer, framed at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, looks crisp and clear with terrific detail (you can practically count each whisker on Depp's chin, if you feel so inclined). By this time, we expect discs to be free of artifacts, aliasing, and other such afflictions of the medium's nascent offerings and this one doesn't disappoint. The colors are rather muted yet that's clearly attributed to production design and not the result of an inferior transfer. The audio, presented in a clean English 5.1 mix, is well mastered and provides an impressively wide soundstage and clear dialogue for the duration, all superbly accentuated by composer Philip Glass' haunting Herrmann-esqe score.
Extras here are of the usual fare yet writer/director Koepp's running commentary fares better than many I've endured of late. He is properly energetic and informative from the start and truly offers interesting insight into all aspects of the production in an interesting and genuinely engaging manner. In other words, it's recommended listening. The featurettes -- there' s three of them -- aren't as interesting and actually seem to lag along. If, however, you want to peek in on interviews and a scant few behind-the-scenes sequences, give them a cursory look. There are four deleted scenes (and rightly so) that really would have offered nothing to the finished film, a fact that Koepp himself acknowledges. Animatics (computer-animated storyboards) are included as are an armload of trailers for the feature film plus other Columbia TriStar titles. As I said, the usual selection of extra features and, while not all top-notch caliber, they're thankfully not the sort of shameless promotional plugs that infiltrate other "feature-rich" discs.
Critics will undoubtedly scoff at the story's innate hypocrisy: the charge of plagiarism within the narrative seems absurd when you consider so many of the elements were blatantly drawn from other sources. Whether a sign that King has wearily lapped himself on the creative arc or has cleverly (irreverently?) found plagiarizing himself to be entertaining in its own right, you'll see plenty of content that's straight out of the pages of The Shining, The Dark Half, The Dead Zone, Misery, and others. Some may enjoy this as a form of "homage" while others might sneer a jeer a bit at the apparent "fromage" of it all (that would be me).
Although this film does well to present an intriguing tale that will draw you in, it's not without its faults in execution. Most notable are the numerous signposts along the way that are generally easy to detect and deduce that perhaps telegraphs many of the events (even the twist climax) in a way that makes predicting the final outcome a relatively simple task. Again, I was thankful for the acting and overall unbalanced ambience within the picture for keeping my curiosity piqued until the final frames.
Certainly, Secret Window is not a jaw-dropping picture and is actually somewhat forgettable. Still, it is entertaining, features some good performances, and would make for decent rainy-day entertainment comparable to that of curling up with a good book. Replay value is generally low in my estimation but this is certainly well recommended for rental. Take the extra time to listen to the commentary as well; it's informative and enjoyable.
I'm strongly tempted to declare contempt of court in the case of Secret Window for it's sheer audacity to commit the very sin its narrative bemoans. However, given its effort to offer a generally faithful adaptation of a published work and since the borrowed elements were sanctioned by the originator of the source material, this court is inclined to show a generous amount of leniency despite this unorthodox behavior. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site