I was probably expecting too much.
Here I was faced with one of my favorite genres and one of my favorite (perhaps my very favorite) actors working today in a film by a director whose Stir of Echoes impressed me greatly with both its atmosphere and its general understanding of cinematic vocabulary. (You can keep the similar — and, to me, distressingly overrated — Sixth Sense; I’ll take Echoes any day.) To add to this plethora of potential, the film has a great supporting cast, and even a Philip Glass score (well, I might have preferred Michael Nyman, but Glass is hardly chopped liver).
The fact that the screenplay is based on a Stephen King story struck me as a little iffy, though for all the dreck King’s prose has inspired, there are always Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to prove that King adaptations aren’t invariably either lost causes (Children of the Corn), or just enjoyable silliness (Dreamcatcher). At least that’s the case with those King-inspired films that don’t strive to be “something more,” like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Well, with Secret Window, we didn’t get Children of the Corn stuff, but neither did we get The Shining. What we did get comes across as a mind-games variant on Misery — a kind of middle-ground blend of a King potboiler-thriller and those “something more” movies.
Secret Window starts out being a pretty good movie, remaining so for about two-thirds of its length, then becomes a pretty bad movie for that final third. Sadly, the good isn’t as good as the best King adaptations, and the bad isn’t as funny as the worst ones.
That said, it isn’t actually a bad movie, just one that ought to be less disappointing than it is. Its basic concept is solid and workable thriller material: Author Mort Rainey (Depp) is suffering from writer’s block and depression brought on by an ugly divorce, and suddenly finds himself at the mercy of certified nutcase John Shooter (John Turturro), who claims the writer stole his story. And Koepp knows exactly what to do with this material — and with his powerhouse star. At least at first.
The opening shot — where the camera comes in through a second-floor window and prowls around Mort’s writing room — is astonishingly strong and stylish, conveying everything the viewer needs to know about the situation at hand. Koepp also provides Depp with just the right material to take full advantage of the actor’s persona and his knack for quirky bemusement. Depp is never less than fascinating here, if more subdued — for the most part — than viewers expecting his flamboyant turns in Pirates of the Caribbean and Once Upon a Time in Mexico might wish.
Apart from the actor’s egg-beater hairdo, the character is created in subtle, humorous touches that come together to form an intriguing portrait. Here we have a man apparently at the height of his writing career, yet he lives in fear of his housekeeper (Joan Heney, Spider), even hiding from her that he’s smoking a cigarette (in a manner reminiscent of an adolescent).
Mort’s only cure for “bad writing” is the delete key on his computer, and he’s shattered by the loss of his marriage and haunted by an apparent early incident involving plagiarism — so haunted that Mort can’t be quite sure if there’s any truth to Shooter’s claim that he stole his story — and then added insult to injury by “ruining” the ending. (That clincher is ultimately one of the most on-target comments on writing I’ve seen in any film since David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which may just be the best movie ever made about writing. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to really discuss this aspect of Secret Window without destroying its surprise elements.)
The film holds its own as a thriller for some considerable time even after it’s tipped its hand as to what’s really going on. And the way Koepp leads the viewer to that realization is perfectly fair, very savvy and amazingly subtle — in some instances, to the point of being esoteric. (I’m not sure if it’s a clue or a continuity error that has Mort pull a brown, faux-cork-filtered cigarette out of a pack of L&M’s — a brand with a plain white filter.) The first real clue to what’s actually happening — a physically impossible reflection — is an interesting variation on a similar moment from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (and it’s even more of a hint if you catch the source). Moments like this — and Depp’s performance — make Secret Window just that much more unfortunate when the film finally loses its bearings.
There’s much of value here — despite the fact that some of it plays like a Stephen King’s Greatest Hits collection (the Misery connection, for instance, and the play on the name “Shooter” that’s very like the “redrum” business in The Shining). Ultimately, though, Secret Window never rises above the level of a stylishly enjoyable diversion that needed to pay more attention to its own dictate that the ending is the only thing that matters.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke