Secret Window Review
Johnny Depp is, in my opinion, one of the few big-name Hollywood actors who can genuinely improve the quality of any film simply by being in it. He was Pirates of the Caribbean's saving grace, and his chameleon-like ability to play any number of distinctly different characters to perfection has long made him one of the most sought-after actors in the business. It is certainly the case that, with Secret Window, Depp's presence transforms what could have been a fairly mundane thriller into something more. That's not to say that Secret Window is a masterpiece, because it blatantly isn't, despite the talent involved, but it is an engaging and slickly-produced piece of work with Depp as the centrepiece.
Depp stars here as Mort Rainey, a struggling writer who lives with his blind dog in a cabin in the woods, following the break-up of his marriage, after he discovered his wife Amy (Maria Bello) in bed with another man, Ted (Timothy Hutton). One day he receives a visit from John Shooter (John Turturro), a menacing southern fellow who claims that Mort plagiarized his short story, Secret Window. Mort claims to have done no such thing, and the fact that his story was published before Shooter claims to have written his would seem to seal the case. However, Shooter is not a quitter, and as he becomes more hostile, first killing Mort's dog and then torching Amy's house, Mort becomes increasingly scared for his own life.
Very few actors could take the character of a bumbling, nervous recluse with thick glasses, unkempt hair and holes in his clothes (and who probably smells quite bad, given that he never seems to wash or change) and make him seem cool, but cool is Depp's middle name and he pulls off the task necessarily. I'm not sure that this is the kind of response I was supposed to have towards Mort, but it certainly allowed me to root for him throughout the film's duration. The script is peppered with amusingly snide remarks, most of them delivered with great gusto by Depp, thanks to the expert penmanship of writer/director David Koepp, who seems to be on something of a roll these days with short, snappy thrillers (see 2002's Panic Room). Elsewhere, John Turturro turns in an excellent performance that is both menacing and amusing, and Maria Bello is suitably beautiful and sensitive as Mort's ex-wife, who acts hard-done-to despite being responsible for the break-up of their marriage. None of the cast possess the same amount of screen presence that Depp does, but they all manage to hold their own, often having to make do with underwritten roles.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of weak supporting characters is not the only problem with Koepp's script. Most of its flaws are, I suspect, a result of the source material, a short story by Stephen King entitled Secret Window, Secret Garden. This pacing is at times languid, and I am not convinced that enough material exists even to justify even the relatively brief 96-minute running time (92 minutes with PAL speed-up). A number of scenes simply boil down to Mort looking grumpy, slouching around on his couch or acting scared. It also didn't help that I guessed the film's big twist within moments of Shooter's first appearance. "It can't be that obvious!" I kept telling myself as the film progressed, but it does indeed prove to be one great big cliché that I suspect a number of people will probably guess simply by reading the film's premise.
Secret Window, therefore, proves to be a rather uninteresting plod through a writer's psyche. Depp, as usual, gives it all he's got and adds yet another impressive performance to his repertoire, but even he cannot make this fairly bog-standard thriller any thing more than a competent piece of work.
Presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, Secret Window has been given a fairly good transfer that looks to have been filtered somewhat, although without being overly soft: it just has an overall flatness and lack of definiton characteristic of transfers that have had their entropy considerably reduced. The colours look a little oversaturated at times, and some scenes are underlit in such a way that the black level becomes quite murky, but these might have been stylistic choices. The presentation is hampered by an inadequate bit rate, with compression artefacts intruding on a number of occasions, the most common being mosquito noise around detailed areas of the screen and swimming backgrounds. There is also an above average amount of edge enhancement on display, resulting in a transfer that, while probably more than acceptable in the eyes of the average viewer, is going to cause no end of annoyance to those who demand Criterion-level visuals.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is impressive without being stunning. The dialogue is always clear, although given the nature of Mort's personal musings it can be a little on the quiet side. Surround action is not particularly prominent, although the rear channels are both used to good effect to augment both Philip Glass's score and the ambient wildlife.
Subtitles are provided in a variety of languages, including complete English and Spanish subtitling for all of the bonus materials. Interestingly, an option for English "captions" is also included, which attempts to reproduce the look of American Closed Captions - an interesting but ultimately pointless inclusion.
The bonus materials kick off with a commentary featuring writer/director David Koepp. Those who enjoyed his witty banter with veteran Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman on the Panic Room special edition will be disappointed to hear that this track is fairly dry and technical in nature. Koepp spends a lot longer discussing individual shots and special effects than talking about the film on a script level. He certainly covers all the bases, and there are few blank spots in the commentary, but I got the feeling that the track would have been improved if Koepp had had someone else in the room with whom to bounce ideas.
Four deleted scenes are included, two of them with optional commentary by Koepp. The most intriguing of these is a slightly longer ending sequence, and without revealing too much I would suggest that the change was probably made in order to secure a PG-13 rating.
With a running time of approximately an hour in total, three featurettes entitled "From book to film", "A look through it" and "Secrets revealed" respectively deal with all the main phases of the filmmaking process, featuring plenty of interviews from the major participants (mainly, but not limited to, David Koepp) and a small amount of behind the scenes footage. In a sense, these extensive featurettes more or less make the documentary redundant, as they cover similar ground and offer the luxury of being less confined to discussing only what is on-screen at any given time. The length and number of film clips used are a little excessive, but at least they are generally used to illustrate a specific point rather than simply to film time or sell the movie.
Animatics are provided for the opening credits and three other key scenes. Clearly borrowing an idea or two from David Fincher's exhaustive pre-visualization of Panic Room, these animatics lay out the main action and camera moves of the scenes in a rough 3D animation form. Devoid of dialogue of any kind, they are actually pretty funny to watch and provide an interesting look at the pre-production process. Oddly enough, all but one of the scenes is presented in a tiny window with black bars surrounding it.
The Secret Window trailer is also included, along with bonus trailers for Identity, The Missing, Panic Room and Kingdom Hospital.
While Secret Window is by no means an essential purchase, it is a strong enough entry into the psychological thriller sub-genre and is presented here on a solid disc with few serious shortcomings. Johnny Depp fans will be more than happy to add this release to their collection, but the film is overall closer to rental quality, given is relative lack of replay value.
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