22 October 2008

Secret Window

Originally written in March 2004.

Secret Window

The tone of Secret Window, one of the best psychological thrillers in years, is set in a complicated early shot.

The camera glides across a lake, heading toward an isolated cabin in the woods, reaches the shore and continues forward, entering the cabin through a window. Meandering about, it gazes at various rooms and objects, including a laptop computer with a decidedly dull paragraph written on it, before settling on a large mirror. The camera pulls in ever closer until the reflection of a man asleep on a couch has become a real room.

The elaborate staging instantly brings to mind the slick stylization of David Fincher, not surprising considering Secret Window's writer-director, David Koepp, wrote Fincher's Panic Room. The transition through the mirror pulls us inside the world of the film, a world that seems slightly off-kilter compared to our own.

The slumbering man is Mort Rainey, played by Johnny Depp with an eccentricity that goes beyond his frazzled hair, black-rimmed glasses and tattered bathrobe. Alone in his cabin, he talks to his dog and carries on a running conversation with himself, asking questions in his thoughts—we hear them in voiceover—and answering them aloud. He's a writer (a successful one if he's able to do it full-time), though he appears to have done very little work of late.

He's awakened by a knock on his door from a tall, imposing man wearing a black hat and calling himself John Shooter (John Turturro). “You stole my story,” he says in a Mississippi drawl. Rainey dismisses Shooter's claim and settles back into his couch. “Now where was I?” he asks himself before dozing off again.

But, sure enough, the manuscript Shooter leaves behind matches Rainey's short story, “Secret Window,” almost word for word. It tells the story of a man who murders his wife and buries her in her garden.

“I didn't steal that story ... I don't think,” Rainey says to himself, doubt creeping into his mind even though he knows he wrote “Secret Window” in 1994 and Shooter says he wrote his story in 1997. He might even have a copy of the magazine that published the story in June 1995.

Shooter gives Rainey three days to track down the magazine. In the meantime, the mind games begin. Shooter leaves behind threatening letters, appears to shadow Rainey's every move and has an alarming amount of information on Rainey's personal life.

The remote cabin setting provides ample opportunities for Rainey to investigate strange noises in the dark, and in the ultimate sign of movie evil, his dog meets an unfortunate end. When the local police are no help (the sheriff [Len Cariou] does needlepoint at his desk), Rainey enlists the aid of a private detective (Charles S. Dutton). The search for the magazine leads Rainey back to his estranged wife, Amy (Maria Bello), who still lives in their picturesque suburban home. Her new beau, Ted (Timothy Hutton), is about as likable as Shooter.That's about as far as I can go with the plot without spoiling the movie's fun.

Secret Window is based on a novella by Stephen King called “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” which appears in his book Four Past Midnight. Mostly due to its writer protagonist, it recalls Misery, one of the best film adaptations of King's work.

The movie follows the classic Hitchcockian formula of the innocent man wrongly accused. But Depp is too original a performer and Koepp, who wrote the screenplays for Spider-Man and the first two Jurassic Park movies and directed Stir of Echoes, is too stylish a director to stick to that straightforward approach. It's the rare occurrence where the imagination of both the filmmakers and actors matches that of King.

As evidenced by a long list of failures (Dreamcatcher, most recently), that's no mean feat.

Grade: B+

(Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, sexual content and language. 96 minutes.)

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