Judge Dennis Prince had a secret window that overlooked a secret garden where he spied a secret squirrel. The mole never came out in the daylight, though.
Our review of Secret Window, published July 26th, 2004, is also available.
"Won't do you no good to play games with me, Mr. Rainey. This has got to be settled."
Several years ago, I took a look at Secret Window and found it to be a single-pane affair, with a mold of over-familiarity forming along its edges. Adapted from a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, it tells of a lonely writer, hounded by his own addictions and eccentricities, who struggles to get beyond the first paragraph of his new novel. This more-than-familiar setup, I proclaimed, had been visited and revisited too many times to sustain our interest. Perhaps this has been the long-suffering struggle of Stephen King himself—within the framework of his many writings, he has effectively become the embodiment of a formulaic narrative all his own. So Secret Window is yet another story that lugs around so many of King's clichés—yes, as often has he has called upon them, they have arguably become the "clichés" of his oeuvre—and dares us to read (or watch) it all over again. Thankfully, the author's oft-employed devices remain compelling—especially to writers.
And now, with this new Blu-ray disc, we're tempted to look again at this not-entirely-unique tale of a wretched writer who's struggling to churn out yet another work of literary import while his frayed world has just taken a sharp left turn into a new realm of self-doubting despair.
This writer, it seems, is a plagiarist, and trouble has come just come knocking at his front door.
Facts of the Case
Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) is hardly the embodiment of glamour or success. Sure, he's a well-published author whose success gained him a home in the heart of a New England-style suburb, but now he's relegated to an increasingly disheveled retreat perched along the banks of Tashmore Lake. His divorce from the lovely Amy (Maria Bello, Coyote Ugly) was well founded—she was caught in bed with another man at a seedy roadside motel—but the broken union is severely impacting his writing, if a single, poorly-written paragraph qualifies as "writing." But a despondent heart and an extreme case of writer's block become the least of Rainey's troubles, thanks to a malevolent Mississippian, John Shooter (John Turturro, Anger Management), who rattles the author's world, not to mention his front door, and proclaims "you stol' ma' story." Seems Shooter had written a manuscript entitled "The Secret Window" and claims Rainey's recently published short story of the same name is a blatant word-for-word copy. "This has got to be settled," Shooter seethes. Suddenly, Rainey has become trapped in his own lakeside hideaway, Shooter seemingly always lurking nearby and growing dangerously 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. Shooter has an even darker purpose that threatens to reveal a darker truth, one that would shatter Rainey's increasingly fragile existence.
Paying a second visit to the Secret Window, it still slumps a bit under the weight of King's routine plot devices—and then again, it somehow plays out a bit differently this time. No, this doesn't suggest an alternate ending has been surreptitiously swapped, in nor does it imply this release has been buffeted with newly re-inserted deleted scenes—it just plays differently. It is a patient film, writer/director David Koepp (Panic Room) turning out one of the better King adaptations for the big screen. The film, thankfully, refrains from relying upon horror film contrivances or irrelevant action sequences, forcing the viewer to spend time with the disheveled man, Mort Rainey. For those who write, watching Rainey pad about listlessly in a tattered bathrobe on a well-worn path to his writing loft, where the waiting laptop simply glares at him with its blank-page disdain, and back downstairs to the sofa that welcomes him unconditionally, is about real as it gets. Thankfully, Rainey can't write, for the moment anyway, and Koepp drops us into the conflict within minutes.
The confrontation between Rainey and Shooter begins unannounced and effectively rocks us back on our feet. Like Rainey himself, we begin scratching our heads to figure out if this writer really cribbed from the mad hatter's manuscript. Despite Rainey's attempts to assert himself before the imposing Shooter, we see he actually cowers from the man, physically outmatched and mentally off-kilter. In short order, we're uncertain about where the truth lies, and given the unpleasant nature of both men—Shooter looks like a merciless pursuer, and Rainey appears to have significant character issues—we're unsure where to apply our loyalties. In this way, the film—and its well-riffed story—works quite well.
Previously, I had voiced reservations about the casting of Johnny Depp as Rainey. Certainly, Depp is eccentric and can easily appear borderline-slovenly (it's difficult to determine if an unkempt appearance is "character" or just "Depp"), and I still maintain that after a second viewing. Although he's now quite shrouded in the look and style of Jack Sparrow, there's still the visual pronouncement of "heeeere's Johnny" when he appears on screen. Therefore, although I do enjoy his quirky acting, sprinkled liberally with unusual behavioral ticks, his presence still upstages his work. Hats off, then, to the imposing John Turturro as the perverse pilgrim, John Shooter, who delivers a relentless performance that provides the required squirm factor to keep you perpetually unsettled throughout the picture. As before, I'm still left unimpressed with the one-note characterization of Amy that leaves Maria Bello scant little to work with. Timothy Hutton (The Dark Half) is still satisfying as homewrecker Ted, playing with a high level of obstinacy and contempt.
Having been moderately entertained the first time around, it might seem unusual to return to Tashmore Lake. Given Sony is now offering Secret Window in a new Blu-ray release, there's reason enough to at least give this one an askance look. Actually, the transfer here, encoded at 1080p using MPEG-2, looks great. Framed at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the image is remarkable crisp and clear with such terrific detail that you can practically smell the musty odor that must eke from Rainey's tattered robe. The colors are well saturated, the exterior shots of Rainey's cabin at Tashmore Lake looking more vibrant for it. Expect interiors to be somewhat muted, inherent to the film's production design, but, all in all, this is easily a Tier 1 high definition picture. The PCM 5.1 uncompressed surround mix is excellent as well, providing a wide soundstage and smooth imaging of the discrete effects that occur from any and all surround channels. The dialog, naturally, is mostly anchored in the center channel, and remains clear and intelligible throughout the presentation. And thankfully, Philip Glass's moody score is never lost but perfectly accentuates the proceedings.
Extras here are the same as before. Breezing through them a second time, I've found my previous opinions still hold. Writer/director Koepp's running commentary is still among the better ones I've heard—he's energetic and articulate enough to maintain a steady stream of interesting and engaging facts and observations. In short, I still recommend you give it a listen. The three featurettes are still rather EPK in their mundane appeal. The four deleted scenes are still of no consequence to the film's final cut and belonged, then and now, in the circular file. Animatics (computer-animated storyboards) are included, as is the usual Sony Blu-ray promo bit. The bonus features, then, comprise the entire complement of extras that were offered on the previous standard definition DVD. Even though they're not stellar as a whole, their total inclusion here makes this particular Blu-ray disc a good upgrade path.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, this story blatantly cribs from King's previous works, a point that has already been established here. If you're curious just how much King plagiarizes from King, watch for content that's straight out of the pages of The Shining, The Dark Half, The Dead Zone, Misery, and others.
Also, don't begin to feel too good about yourself upon figuring out the ultimate twist early in the film—most people do. There are numerous signposts along the way that are generally easy to detect and interpret, giving even a 5th grader the ability to see the big finish that's coming. Still, thanks to the acting from Depp and Turturro and the overall unbalanced ambience, the picture manages to hold your attention for the duration.
Secret Window is entertaining, features some good performances, and would make for decent rainy-day entertainment, comparable to curling up with a good book. Replay value is generally low, as this second encounter confirms, but the improvements thanks to the Blu-ray treatment makes it worth watching, once or twice.
Despite the serious allegations of plagiarism here, this court has not determined that liberally borrowing from one's own body of work constitutes a crime. Case dismissed.
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