Director: David Koepp
Cast: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Charles D. Sutton, Timothy Hutton
Plot: A writer, Morton Rainey, (Depp), reeling from a painful divorce, is stalked by a mysterious man (Turturro) in a top hat who claims Rainey plagiarised from him.
Secret Window is an odd, little thriller. On paper, it ticks all the boxes of a by-the-numbers mystery. It doesn’t help that Stephen King is once again reaching into his favourite narrative set-up: a kooky writer becomes victim to his own paranoia and imagination. Depp’s Morton Rainey is at the centre of a troubling brew of misery. His wife is divorcing him, after he caught her in bed with another man. A strange man turns up on his doorstep, threatening to go to the police if Rainey doesn’t admit that he copied his biggest success off of him. Writer’s block! Rainey struggles under the weight of these problems, which is exacerbated when bodies start showing up. It makes for all the trademarks of your everyday thriller.
It is the approach which breaks Secret Window from the norm. For a start, Koepp is far more interested in the characters than the gore or the scares. While Secret Window puts itself into the horror category, there are never really any moments that jump out at you in the horror category. Koepp is far more concerned with building atmosphere and letting the questions tick over in the background. Even the kills, a few of them gruesome in their own right, are cut away from, letting the imagination and sound-board do the dirty work for the director. No, Koepp puts far more faith in his leading man than his creeps. And Johnny Depp is easily the best thing about Secret Window. It is the kind of performance that only Depp can come out with. He takes everything traditional about a movie hero, throws it out the window and starts again. Depp finds a new definition for the word ‘scruffy’, actively distances himself from every other character and reacts to most shocks with a dry quip. And it is here that we find the trick to Secret Window’s success. Comedy. And I don’t mean comedy as in the slapstick variety, or even closeted satire. It is simply the smaller pieces of improvisation that Depp specialises in that brings a smile to your face. One scene sees him accidentally mistake his reflection for an attacker, causing him to smash his mirror. His reaction, and the following punch line, is quietly brilliant, the sort of oddball remark one would make when recovering from a sudden shock. There is also the dark looks he shoots the supporting cast behind their backs or the way he naturally walks around his house, on his own. Just the little flourishes like that, which few other actors would have even thought of, makes Depp’s character far more interesting and relatable than most other thriller leads. And this likeability is what makes the final twist all the more hard-hitting.
Yes, this is one of those movies. The ones that could be accused of treading water until they get to their ‘big reveal’. Secret Window has been criticised by a few, suggesting that this is a movie that lives or dies on its central mystery. Yes, it is guessable. A few story beats accidentally show too much of its hand. A second watch is painful die to how heavy-handed it shoves its answer into the faces of the audience. In fact, figuring it out a few scenes too early, really does damage a lot of Secret Window’s quality. However, the twist still packs weight, mainly down to the chilling sequence that sees the movie off. It is quite nice watching the pieces fall together, especially in one scene that Koepp really flexes his director muscles. There is one trick with a mirror and Depp’s reflection that is a cheap, parlour trick, but I adore to pieces.
Final Verdict: Depp lifts this average thriller higher than you would expect, making this a hidden gem with a ‘marmite’ twist.