Robin Clifford Laura CliffordAuthor Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) should be cranking out copy but a messy divorced has sapped his creative juices and, instead of putting pen to paper, he naps on his sofa – for 16 hours a day. When a psychotic stranger, John Shooter (John Turtturo), shows up on his doorstep accusing the bewildered writer of plagiarism, Rainey must find the resolve, deep inside, to face the threats of his accuser in “Secret Window.”
Once upon a time I used to like Stephen King stories. “The Shining,” “The Stand,” “Carrie” and others, in the old days, would keep me up at nights just to see what happened to the Trashcan Man, Jack Torrance or Carrie White. Then, the schlock shock author put out a string of less-than-stellar works like “It,” “Christine,” “The Tommy Knockers” and the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” among others. For the same reason I grew tired of King’s books, I also lost interest with the screen adaptations of his works. There is a sameness to much of his recent work that smacks of his tried-and-true formulae without any new thrills.
“Secret Windows” is just such an adaptation that has a couple of things going for it. Johnny Depp is hot shot writer Mort Rainey who has been a very successful author until six months ago when he confronted his wife, Amy (Maria Bello) in bed with another man (Timothy Hutton). Their marriage had been failing for some time before the confrontation and now, in the present, Mort is in major denial. He has written less than a paragraph in all these months and even that isn’t very good. And, he is sleeping 16 hour or more a day.
One morning he is awakened by a pounding on the door of his lakeside cabin and, when he answers it, he is face to face with black clad and angry John Shooter (John Turturro). Shooter claims that Mort stole, almost word for word, a book the Mississippian wrote some years ago. Rainey, of course, thinks the guy is a crackpot and informs the stranger that his story, Secret Window, Secret Garden, was published in a magazine at least two years before Shooter’s claim. But, the acerbic, distrustful southerner does not believe Mort and will give the writer just three days to prove him wrong.
Rainey, still in the doldrums of depression over his broken marriage and a severe case of writer’s block, promises that he will get a copy of the magazine and show Shooter the truth. Instead of getting the mag and settling the whole business, Mort drags his feet and things begin to go awry. First, he finds that mayhem has been done to his (actually, Amy’s) loyal old dog, Chico. Then, Shooter makes direct threats against Amy and a one-sided war of escalation begins. Mort first goes to the town sheriff (Len Cariou) but the ineffectual cop is more concerned with his own arthritis than he is of any danger to Mort. The writer next calls upon his friend, ex-NYC police officer Ken Karsch (Charles S. Dutton), to intervene. Shooter keeps on turning up and the threats take on new proportions until the adversaries’ final confrontation.
I won’t spoil the ending for King’s fans but I will say that the concept of duality and good versus evil is a prominent plotline in “Secret Windows.” Helmer/scribe David Koepp’s adaptation of the novella is a high quality work but one that suffers from its oft-told source material. Johnny Depp almost saves the day and, at least, keeps you entertained as we watch the battle of wills between Mort and his nemesis John Shooter. John Turturro, with his southern twang and stern, unrelenting demeanor, is a good foil for Depp. The scenes between these two actors reps some of the best bits in “Secret Windows.”
The rest of the cast has little to do and are hampered by the material in giving any dimension to their characters. Maria Bello is the put upon ex-wife who has given up on Rainey for his neglect and drinking – it’s one of those tough roles that doesn’t give the actor much to hang on to but Bello gives it her best shot. Charles S. Dutton’s performance is little more than a cameo and his outcome is no surprise. Timothy Hutton, as Amy’s replacement S.O. is there, as far as I can tell, to introduce a sinister note – or is he?
The outcome of the story, while cleverly handled from a technical sense, only solidifies exactly what I thought was going to happen. (BTW, I did not read the novella, but felt like I had while watching “Secret Window.”)
Techs are very good with production design, by Howard Cummings, creating a solitary world for the reclusive sleeper/writer. The remote lakeside home is suitably rustic and sloppy – just the right digs for a forlorn author. Costume design, by Odette Gadoury, is also well done, especially for Johnny Depp. He spends much of the film in a tattered old bathrobe that has seen far better days and it is a signature for the state of the character. Turturro, too, is decked out appropriately in a costume that is a cross between Amish and southern Baptist Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, all in black with a buttoned to the collar white shirt (no tie). Shooter’s flat brimmed black hat is an inspired touch. Lensing, by Fred Murphy, is first rate
“Secret Window” had me for the first two-thirds of the film but it falls apart into typical King-isms in the last third and the ending was telegraphed long before the finale. I give it a C+.
Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) has moved into his lakeshore vacation home, depressed over his pending divorce and suffering from writer's block. A knock on his door will bring Mort a whole new problem - a Mississippi farmer, John Shooter (John Turturro, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), who claims Mort stole his story and published it as the "Secret Window."
Stephen King was already self-plagiarizing his "The Shining" with his 1989 novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden" (think another author in a remote location slowly losing touch, with Shooter a derivative of 'Redrum'). "The Dark Half," his novel published that same year, explores the same themes again, so it would take a real King novice (or movie novice for that matter) to find any thrills in this thriller. Although writer/director David Koepp ("Stir of Echoes") gives the proceedings an unsettling atmosphere and Johnny Depp delivers one of his typically fine-tuned performances, "Secret Window" wraps up with an ending that's as preposterous as, well, the ending of most later Stephen King works.
In a splendid opening sequence, director of photography Fred Murphy's ("Stir of Echoes") camera appears to glide across the lake up to Mort's cabin, in through a second story window (the 'secret' one of the title) and down the stairs, finally resting on a disheveled Mort, asleep on his living room couch. After the threatening encounter with Shooter, Mort revisits his old story which was obviously shaped by his tortured emotions about his marital breakup. When Shooter begins to act on his threats, Mort hires a detective, Ken (Charles S. Dutton, "Against the Ropes"), who handled a previous, similar situation, but Ken is unable to turn up any sign of the man. Meanwhile, Mort's soon-to-be-ex Amy (Maria Bello, "The Cooler") frets with portentous worries while Mort's hostility towards her lover Ted (Timothy Hutton, "Sunshine State") escalates.
Depp's quirky and unique acting choices turned what would have been last year's bloated Disney live action pirate flick into a hip entertainment, but although he invests as much of his skill into Mort Rainey, Depp cannot do the same for "Secret Window." He does make the experience far more watchable than it ought to be, however, with his eccentric, outwardly violent manifestations of his inner turmoil. Watch Depp pantomime shoot his housekeeper, Mrs. Garvey (Joan Heney, "Spider"), or ferociously strangle a phone handset during a conversation with Amy. His dialogue is delivered with an utterly precise timing that spins an arch edge to the words ('Rubbernecker!). Maria Bello also overachieves the material with her portrayal of the conflicted wife. Turturro is amusing slumming it as a single-minded bogeyman. Dutton and Hutton's roles don't give either any facets to explore.
Koepp, whose creepy "Stir of Echoes" was overlooked in the glare of "The Blair Witch Project," takes particle board and gives it an ebony veneer until warp sets in. Production designer Howard Cummings ("Trigger Effect") brings a shadowy personality to Rainey's cabin, which he and Koepp stud with visual symbols of Rainey's emotional state, from mirrors to a blind-in-one-eye dog to a wooden plaque depicting two fish hanging from a hook. But as soon as Koepp literally tips his hat, the jig is up and "Secret Window" derails into the worst kind of horror schlock with ugly, exploitative violence and a sick joke coda that's simply silly.
Most audiences will likely see right through "Secret Window," but fans of Depp may want to give it a glance.
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