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ISSUE
  Thursday
168
  March 11
2004
c o n t e n t s
 
 

Independent Film Gets ‘Down and Dirty’
 

Depp Pushes, But Can’t Open ‘Secret Window’

Not a Typical ‘Japanese Story’
 
 
 
 

 theReel
 
Depp Pushes, But Can’t Open ‘Secret Window’
 
by Jeremy Mathews

“Secret Window”
Columbia Pictures
Directed by David Koepp
Screenplay by David Koepp, based on the novella by Stephen King
Produced by Gavin Polone
Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles Dutton, Len Cariou and Gillian Ferrabee
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

I can’t help but think that “Secret Window” would be a better film if it were played solely for comedy. This isn’t meant to play the “so bad it’s funny” card. The film is genuinely amusing enough to clear fear from the mind when it’s supposed to be building. If the whole film were just a little more high-strung and out there, it could have been a great screwball comedy with a classic Johnny Depp performance. Looking at it as an attempt to create anxiety, it fails. It would have succeeded as a comedy about anxiety.

Depp plays an emotionally scarred writer named Mort who’s pissed off at everybody—not just his ex-wife and her new lover, but his saintly cleaning woman as well. When he’s not passed out on the couch, he writes bad, quickly deleted paragraphs in the seclusion of the cabin he’s living in since his ex-wife took his house. He’s terribly inconvenienced when the phone rings or the cleaning lady puts the pillows on the couch. Mort is such a complete creation that Depp’s presence throughout the film almost makes it worthwhile.

Depp isn’t alone in making positive contributions. Writer/director David Koepp made the film, and his previous credits include “Stir of Echoes,” a film unfortunately similar to “The Sixth Sense” that came out at the same time, and the screenplay for David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” which cleverly avoided many thriller clichés. Koepp displays great skill and some of the same show-offish long tracking shots Fincher uses, but fails to create suspense this time around. The most engaging scene is the opening shot, which uses a fixed shot of Depp through his windshield on a rainy night as an inner voice tells him to leave. He pulls his car out, then backs it up again as the camera moves out to reveal that Mort is at a motel where his wife is cheating on him.

Mort’s conversation with his inner voice reach an amusing conclusion during the film’s obvious third act, whose content reflects a plot device twist that is as common as a strong Johnny Depp performance. This final act and the incessant repetitiveness of Mort’s encounters with a mysterious visitor just barely prevent the film’s impressive efforts from earning it a recommendation.

The visitor, named John Shooter (John Turturro), knocks on the door to claim that Mort stole his story. He leaves a manuscript behind, and Mort eventually looks at it and realizes that it’s a word-for-word copy of one of his short stories. John’s ex-wife Amy (Maria Bello) makes some vague references to a story Mort did somehow plagiarize and settle out of court, but in this case Shooter claims he wrote the story three years after Mort published his. He says he’ll go away if Mort gets the magazine it first published in and shows it to him. Of course, Mort takes his time getting it from Amy’s house while Shooter keeps popping up out of nowhere to say hello and maybe kill a dog.

The most frightening moment in the film occurs when Mort discovers his butchered dog, not because we don’t know what is behind the white cover (it’s quite obvious), but because Philip Glass’ score features a loud, booming hit that would scare anyone within 50 feet of the theater.

The actual conversations with the dog killer are never creepy. As the sinister man from Mississippi, John Turturro seems to be playing the same man (from the same Southern state) as his character in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Things are always more tense when he’s not around and Mort is looking for him. Depp creates the best suspense when he’s alone, mumbling to himself and attacking the bathroom, only to realize his actions are irrational. Once Shooter arrives, it’s the same old talk about justice and settling scores while Mort shows confusion.

And there’s no doubt that Mort is scared and confused. The only problem: We’re just amused.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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