Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Secret Window

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SECRET WINDOW

5/10

USA 2004 : David KOEPP : 96 mins

Successful author Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) is in the throes of a messy divorce from his wife Amy (Maria Bello), a situation not helped by the fact that Mort can’t stand her new boyfriend Ted (Timothy Hutton). Spending most of his time wearing a ratty housecoat, curled up asleep on his ratty sofa while his dog Chico looks on, Mort’s productivity is limited by his unfortunate combination of writer’s block and sheer laziness. He’s suddenly roused from his slumbers, however, when a black-hatted stranger knocks at his door. Dressing and talking like a Mississippi dirt-farmer and calling himself ‘John Shooter’ (John Turturro), the visitor accuses Rainey of having plagiarised his work for one of his short stories, ‘Secret Garden.’ As Shooter’s threats escalate into violent action, Rainey finds his own life – and sanity – coming under threat.

Writer-director Koepp has established himself as perhaps Hollywood’s most prominent scriptwriter in the last decade or so, with credits like the two Jurassic Park movies, Carlito’s Way, Panic Room and Spider-Man under his belt. In between these big-bucks projects, Koepp has slotted in some more low-key stints in the director’s chair: 1996’s The Trigger Effect and 1999’s Stir of Echoes, and now Secret Window. All three movies have the feel of expanded Twilight Zone episodes, in which the main characters find themselves at the centre of bizarre events which can’t be fully explained in rational terms.

Secret Window is based on a novella by Stephen King, and it shows – the film treads what’s become the over-familiar turf of a blocked writer is menaced by a deranged third-party: a reader, a fan, or a figure who may or may not be a figment of their over-creative imagination. And the presence of Hutton seems to directly nod to one particular previous King adaptation that fit the formula exactly, George Romero’s 1991 The Dark Half. Though it wouldn’t be fair to go into details, Secret Window isn’t a million miles away from that film’s premise – though the basic formula might also be expressed as Misery with a Cape Fear twist.

After channelling Keith Richards (and perhaps Peter O’Toole) to universal acclaim in last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp has stated that he’s based Mort Rainey on zonked-out Beach Boy legend Brian Wilson. And the pretty-boy star has a lot of fun as what must be the most dishevelled, bedraggled, tousle-haired he’s ever played – which is just as well, as Rainey is seldom off-camera throughout the film’s running time in what amounts to an extended, detailed character-study. As his black-hatted nemesis, meanwhile, Turturro gets to exude plenty of Deep South menace.

But despite the strength of the two leads, there isn’t really that much else going on here. Koepp parcels out the suspense and some jolting shocks for an hour or so, but it’s a very talky affair and when push comes to shove the film script rapidly comes apart at the seams. Like last year’s Identity, Secret Window builds up to – and pivots – upon a climactic “Big Twist” that will have been painfully obvious to all but the most lunk-headed of viewers from very early on. This robs the finale of whatever power it might have had, and indeed the last ten minutes are by far the weakest part of the whole movie: ironic, given the way Rainey and Shooter bang on about the importance of endings, and how ‘perfect’ they believe their own to be. A pity, then, that Koepp’s creativity couldn’t match up to that of his fictional creations.

26th April, 2004
(seen same day : UGC Middlesbrough : press show)

by Neil Young