Lately, it seems the imagination in thriller, mystery, suspense genre has ebbed gradually away leaving this pretty, occasionally aurally enticing, but empty shells. While Secret Window was more engaging than other recent thrillers like Twisted, or last year's Gothika, there were some unfortunate parallels to be drawn.
Based on a Stephen King novella, Secret Window follows mystery writer Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) after his recent separation from his wife (Maria Bello). In his new country home he is visited by a strange southerner, John Shooter (John Turturro) who claims that Rainey not only plagiarized his story, but ruined the ending as well. He demands proof that Rainey published the story in 95, two years before Shooter claims to have written it. As Rainey is continually foiled by various circumstances and fails to produce, Shooter continues to threaten him, upping the ante by killing his dog, before moving on to scarier actions. In the meantime Rainey struggles with his estranged wife and her new partner (Timothy Hutton) over divorce papers, old grudges etc. A past bout with plagiarism surfaces, and as Shooter's creepiness intensifies, Rainey realizes that nothing is as it seems, and that all those around him are in jeopardy.
I wish I had a chance to read King's original novella so that I could, with certainty, tell you whether the story wasn't particularly brilliant to begin with, or if David Koepp and Columbia Pictures mangled King's work, as so often happens in the transformation to screen. I suspect the latter. As in Twisted and Gothika it wasn't difficult to peer behind the curtains of mystery to see what was really going on. What was tough to discern was the intended level of irony in this fact. Throughout the film a particularly worded ending line to Mort's short story is continually repeated and touted, by some, as perfection. The line itself is a bit pretentious, and describes a story ending that is neither original nor unexpected, just like the movie's. I got the feeling that this self-mocking mantra was, for King, a way to take himself, as a writer of thriller-horrors, a little less seriously. Obviously, this ending, this story within a story, was not perfect...but it could be funny. (There were more obvious bits of humor too, that were handled well both in writing and acting). I was not sure that the film, however, was ready to open up and laugh at itself. So I came away with yet another feeling of ambivalence about the film's recognition of its own camp.
But what the script lacked was made up for by sound, scene and acting. Composer Phillip Glass worked a musical magic with the eerie and classic scores he does so well. Haunting yet sad, subtle but intense, the bits of music that punctuated these beautiful but scary forested Quebecois scenes lingered as an important memory but did not intrude or take over the scenes.
The costume and colors had the same effect. They were not garish or overly vibrant but rich with the greens and browns that made up the lakeside cabin, or Depp's own flawless, tanned skin. A little humor, along with beauty, was also added in his perpetually disheveled-to-perfection hair. I heard several comments concerning the artistry of the makeup crew and how they were able to keep up the farce of Rainey's oh-so-pretty sink into alcoholism and depression. But besides his attractiveness, Depp also acted the part well. While revelations his character faced seemed abrupt from a writing standpoint, they were, at least, sincere. His confusion, fear and anger were palpable throughout the film and blended nicely with his always charming, yet often disturbing and uncanny, nature.
Secret Window follows in the footsteps of many interesting stories that falter on the big screen. If it is the film's own claimed perfection that you seek, immerse yourself, instead, in one of King's famed tomes. But for a night of dreamy Depp watching and a fright here and there, Secret Window has just what you'd want.