WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I admit to chuckling by the time Secret Window came to its blustery conclusion. And, unfortunately, unintended laughter probably isn't the reaction director David Koepp was hoping for from the audience of this particular film, which is based on the Stephen King novella Secret Window, Secret Garden. This was the kind of derisive laughter that comes from watching a straight-ahead horror story—well-directed and acted, glossily produced, with good suspense and character development—devolve into a campy, too-clever exercise in genre game-playing. In the words of the story's main character, "The only thing that matters is the ending." If you hold those words true, the only thing that matters about Secret Garden's is a big eye-roller of a twist.
Stephen King's novella—yes, yet another story about a troubled writer, in the vein of The Shining, The Dark Half, Misery, and Bag of Bones—is an effective piece that benefits from its relative brevity. It packs a punch simply because King never let it get out of hand and grow into the kind of unedited, bloated epics he's become increasingly known for. (After all, King is at his very best when he imposes word-count rules on himself, evidenced by such work as The Green Mile and The Mist.) Adapted and directed by Koepp (Stir of Echoes), Secret Window retains that effectiveness in its first two acts and particularly in its unquestionably powerful opening moments, in which we see our protagonist, Morton Rainey (Johnny Depp), sitting and stewing in his car, in a fury of indecision, under a steady onslaught of snow.
Rainey is a best-selling author holed up in a remote cabin, pounding Doritos and Mountain Dew as he suffers from a monumental case of writer's block. As we learn from that intriguing prologue (which the film never quite lives up to), Rainey is also suffering from a shattered marriage, as well as the specter of plagiarism—apparently a one-time transgression early in his career. Perhaps it's inevitable, then, that Rainey is visited, mere minutes into the film, by John Shooter (John Turturro), a menacing Southern gothic type who accuses Rainey of stealing a short story he claims to have written. The story progresses from there in a deliberate fashion, as a confused and increasingly agitated Rainey tries to clear his name. We meet Rainey's ex-wife Amy (Maria Bello), and the man who broke up the marriage, Ted (Timothy Hutton, whom you might remember from the filmed version of the aforementioned The Dark Half), and a private detective (Charles Dutton). And Shooter gradually casts his shadow on all involved.
When all this quietly creepy, psychologically tense stuff comes to a crescendo, you're left facing an ending that's at once bizarre and predictable. Perhaps it's predictable because we've seen it all before. Interestingly, when the big twist comes, you won't feel surprise so much as a sense of Oh yeah, I guess that's clever. Which means this film has its writer's stamp all over it—the end of Secret Window feels like a screenplay come to life rather than an organic piece of storytelling.
Without a doubt, I can tell you that the best reason to watch Secret Window is Depp, who inhabits the character of Rainey with a shuffling sloppiness, his eyes deadened, his expression one of tired annoyance. Depp brings Secret Window to life, and I can't imagine how the movie might have fared without him. His hair is in constant disarray, and he wears a tattered robe like a security blanket during his frequent naps and infrequent writing sessions. (He doesn't write a single word during the film but rather endlessly frustrates himself over one in-process paragraph.) Sounds like a fun character, huh? The truth is, he's a joy to watch, and he provides the lion's share of the film's sense of humor.
And as the thriller surrounding this character, Secret Window scores points for its gradual, mildly suspenseful pace, as Shooter becomes more and more sinister and Rainey dives more deeply into his own turmoil. But there's no getting past that ending. It's the kind of ending that's a deal-breaker, making you dismiss almost everything that came before it. In a span of 10 or 15 minutes, you find yourself backing sadly away from the film as it goes around the bend. It had such promise, after all.
But hey, at least it's got a killer final shot…until you realize it's even better in the DVD's included deleted scenes.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Secret Window in a nice anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.40:1 theatrical presentation. It's not a perfect effort, but it's supremely watchable and in line with most recently released films. Detail is good, not great. I noticed a fairly high level of softness in medium shots, and even some close-ups suffer from blurriness. The best news about the transfer is the color presentation, which appears to be a very accurate representation of the theatrical palette. Contrast is good but not striking. I saw the mildest hint of edge halos.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is well-recorded. Dialog sounds excellent and clear, and I noticed no breaking up at the high end, except for two distinct moments when Depp yells at the top of his voice in anger. The score comes across warmly and with a real sense of purpose. Surround activity through the first half of the film is minimal, but during the last half, and particularly during the climax, surrounds kick into high gear with some terrific panning across the back.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Columbia/TriStar has devoted a surprisingly vast array of extras on Secret Window, but the one voice I was hoping to hear is Stephen King himself. However, I gather he was somewhat hands-off regarding this production.
First up is a scene-specific Director's Commentary with David Koepp. The immediately noticeable drawback of this track (depending on when you listen to it) is that Koepp repeats much of the information he shares in the disc's three featurettes. (He's fond of saying, "Books are good for showing what characters think and feel, and movies are good at showing what characters see and do.") For that reason, you might want to consider this commentary—or those featurettes—as somewhat superfluous. Recorded before the film debuted in theaters, the commentary is a non-stop, informative affair, and Koepp has an easygoing, laidback personality. It's a pretty good listen, more workmanlike than wildly entertaining.
Next is 6 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. These snippets don't add up to much, but I got a kick out the gruesome extension of the film's last shot. Wish Koepp had left that one in. You can choose to watch these scenes with very brief director commentary.
Then we get three nice featurettes produced by the ubiquitous Laurent Bouzereau. These three featurettes actually comprise a very solid 63-minute documentary about the making of the film, but par for the course nowadays, it's been chopped into sections for legal reasons. Still, you can choose to Play All if you wish.
The first of these featurettes is the 19-minute Secret Window: From Book to Film, an mildly enlightening piece that you should be aware of: It gives away every single plot device and character motivation. In fact, it basically regurgitates the plot for its opening minutes. But then it gets into some enticing detail, through interviews with Koepp, Depp, Turturro, Dutton, Hutton, and Bello. All have intelligent things to say about the film and the casting. I liked the brief bits about King's suggestions to Koepp. (But Koepp finds the story's "writerly aspects very boring"!)
The second piece is the 30-minute Secret Window: A Look Through It, the most compelling segment of the three. Here, we go minutely through several of the film's key scenes or devices, including the opening shot, the importance of mirror shots, and Johnny Depp and John Turturro's characters' "look." (This last discussion is joined by costume designer Odette Gadoury.) There's also an interesting bit of trivia about Spielberg's Lost World.
The third featurette is the 14-minute Secret Window: Secrets Revealed, which focuses on the twist of the film's ending. Koepp dominates this discussion, as with the other two featurettes.
Rounding things out, you get 7 minutes of Animatics for four key scenes, and Trailers for Secret Window, Seinfeld, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy, the execrable White Chicks, 13 Going on 30, King's Kingdom Hospital, The Mothman Prophecies, and The Triplets of Belleville.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Secret Window is worth your time for its interesting first half and for the performance of Johnny Depp. The ending tries to hard to shock you and instead leaves you strangely unsatisfied. Columbia/TriStar, however, has bestowed the film with good image and sound, and a generous supply of extras. Worth at least a rental.