Director : David Koepp
Screenplay : David Koepp (based on the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” by Stephen King)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Johnny Depp (Mort Rainey), John Turturro (John Shooter), Maria Bello (Amy Rainey), Timothy Hutton (Ted), Charles S. Dutton (Ken Karsch), Len Cariou (Sheriff Dave Newsome), Joan Heney (Mrs. Garvey), John Dunn-Hill (Tom Greenleaf)
(Major spoiler warning: For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, abandon this review and come back later if you don’t want to know what the movie’s big “twist” is.)
Writer/director David Koepp does everything he can to instill suspense and dread into his new film, Secret Window, and for a while it works, right up until its dreadfully silly ending, which is painfully ironic in all the wrong ways given that a recurring piece of dialogue in the film is “The only thing that matters is the ending.”
Koepp pulls out the serious directorial flourishes, beginning just after the credits with an “impossible” crane shot that moves over a lake, up the side of an isolated cabin, through a window (a secret window, as it turns out), across an open upstairs office, and over the balcony where it then moves into an enormous mirror in which we can see the reflection of the sleeping protagonist, a mystery novelist named Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp). It’s all very aesthetically impressive—Hitchcock by way of De Palma by way of Fincher (the latter two of whom Koepp has written screenplays for)—but damned if the story doesn’t just fizzle.
In the movie’s precredits sequence, we see Rainey in close-up in his car, debating internally as to whether he should do something. That something turns out to be busting in on his wife, Amy (Maria Bello), and her new yuppie lover, Ted (Timothy Hutton), in a motel room together. That done, the story kicks ahead six months, where we find Mort, deep in a perpetual state of writer’s block, snoozing away most of his existence at his upstate New York summer cabin while Amy keeps the big house in the suburbs. As played by Depp, Mort is certainly an intriguing character, a perpetually bedheaded artiste who has been so shaken by the collapse of his personal life that everything else around him literally comes to a standstill, especially his writing.
Into this stasis crashes one John Shooter (Jon Turturro), a Mississippi-drawlin’ hayseed with a black Quaker hat and an ominous glare. Shooter appears on Mort’s doorstep one morning with the accusation, “You stole mawh story.” He produces a typewritten manuscript for a yarn titled “Sowing Season” about a man who kills his cheating wife and buries her in her own garden. Shooter accuses Mort of having stolen it and published it as his own short story, “Secret Window.” Mort is positively sure that he didn’t steal the story, especially once Shooter claims to have written it in 1997 and Mort originally published it in a magazine in 1995. Even with this clear-cut piece of evidence, Shooter refuses to back down, and when Mort makes the mistake of getting others involved—the local small-town sheriff (Len Cariou) and a private investigator (Charles S. Dutton)—people start turning up dead.
This is hardly the first time King has penned a story about a frustrated writer with the world stacked against him (the prevalence of this theme in his work is surprising from someone who is so frightening prolific—you wonder if the man has ever suffered a genuine day of writer’s block in his life). Misery, a novel about a romance writer imprisoned by his psychotic “number one fan,” is his most famous, and it was made into a fine, frightening thriller in 1990 by Rob Reiner. “Secret Window, Secret Garden” was originally a novella published in the collection Four After Midnight, and it is hardly one of King’s strongest works. However, as I noted in my review a year ago of the absurd soon-to-be-cult-classic Dreamcatcher (2003), almost anything King writes is destined for the screen, regardless of its cinematic potential.
Despite the basic weakness of the material, Koepp does an admirable job of maintaining an air of suspense through most of Secret Window by throwing the movie full-throttle into King’s writer-as-victim scenario. Everything is working so fundamentally against Mort—including Amy and the increasingly irritating and obtrusive Ted—that you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Depp, always game for playing a character in a way you wouldn’t expect, indulges in Mort’s slovenly narcissism and odd facial tics without ever making him unsympathetic, which is the movie’s primary pleasure. For all of Koepp’s directorial razzle-dazzle, it is ultimately Depp’s barely grounded eccentricity that keeps the movie interesting (Turturro’s overplayed Southern psychopath is just too broad to be truly scary). One wishes Koepp had dispensed with the thriller nonsense altogether and focused solely on the delightfully antagonistic scenes between Mort and Ted, his despised replacement.
But, all of this is beside the point once the movie grinds down to its last 15 minutes. As it turns out, Shooter isn’t even a real person, but rather a psychological projection of Mort’s shattered psyche. The opening motel confrontation was more damaging than it first appeared, and a dream sequence in which Mort witnesses a glowing crack running up the side of his house is a foreshadowing of his own split personality.
This is a not-so-clever turn of events that worked much better on the page than it does on the screen, even though Koepp does everything he can to make it compelling, including a visualized split-personality back-and-forth between Mort’s two selves, which somehow worked when Gollum did it in The Two Towers (2002), but here feels hackneyed. And the movie really crumbles once it requires Mort to adopt Shooter’s drawl, not to mention his hat; for all the strength of his performance, Depp is simply not frightening here. He doesn’t come across as particularly evil, so when his Shooter half wins out in the end, it doesn’t carry the requisite chill.
However, credit is due where it’s due, and Koepp should get some props for making the brave decision to follow through on the story’s twisted turn of events by giving us a bleak, somewhat blackly comic ending that leaves Mort and his split personality alive and breathing and virtually everyone else buried in the ground, which is a major change from the way King ended the original story. But, still, even this is weakened by some denouement silliness involving Mort, now outfitted with sparkling new braces, gamely going about his daily routines while everyone gets out of his way. If there is an pleasure to be found in Secret Window, repeat to yourself over and over, “It’s not only the ending that matters …”
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Columbia Pictures Inc.