Cynthia Fuchs, 13 March 2004
Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) talks
to himself. He first appears in Secret Window in his car, his
voice-over ominous, both immediate and abstract: "Turn around. Turn
the car around and get the hell out of here, right now." He does it,
the camera aimed through the windshield and so tight on his face
that you have no idea where he is or what he's turning from. That
is, until he turns again, spinning his vehicle back toward the motel
that he was, apparently, trying to leave. Screeching to a stop, he
grabs a room key, screeches to the room, and bursts in the door,
whereupon he confronts a couple entangled in bed -- all three
parties flailing, loud, livid.
The scene cuts to "six months
later," and Mort lies passed out on his sofa. Wrapped in a tattered
bathrobe, his hair flies about his face even when he's still, which
he is not for long. Comes a knock at the door, and with that, the
descent into the sort of madness that afflicts characters --
especially writers -- in Stephen King stories. Based on a novella,
David Koepp's film manages about an hour's worth of decent
creepiness (helped by Philip Glass's menacing score, as well as Fred
Murphy's adroitly moody cinematography) before it spins into an
ordinary and too-obvious-ahead-of-time finale.
Whatever its visual and soundtrack
merits, Secret Window's foremost asset is the wondrous Depp.
Mort Rainey -- so ignominiously named -- is alternately twitchy and
glib, annoying and charming. A mystery writer, he has followed up
his ill-planned assault on his even-then-estranged wife Amy (Maria
Bello) and her lover Ted (Timothy Hutton) with an extended hole-up
at his isolated home in upstate New York. Depressed and unable to
write, he sits in front of his laptop and stares at the screen (last
word before the blinking cursor: "I"), talking it over with his dog,
Chico. "No bad writing," he says at last, wearily deleting the
partial paragraph with a decisive keystroke.
Or maybe it only seems decisive.
This non-exchange actually comes after that knock at the door, very
decisive indeed, by one John Shooter (John Turturro), a Mississippi
farmer come to town to accuse Mort of "stealing" his story. That it
happens to be a story about an angry man murdering his estranged
wife is hardly coincidence; neither is it an accident that Shooter's
name is Shooter, or that he wants Mort to "change the ending," that
is, make it perfect, the way he originally wrote it. Vaguely ruffled
(though it's hard to tell, as he just looks generally ruffled), Mort
insists he has proof of authorship, a 1995 Ellery Queen
magazine with his name on the story. John threatens violence
(colorfully, as in, "I'll burn your life and everyone in it like a
cornfield in a high wind") if Mort does not produce said proof
within three days.
Baffled by John's aggression and
appearance (especially his rather distinctive hat), Mort is yet
inclined to take the charge seriously. This because he has a history
of plagiarism (though, as he repeats, "It was just that one time"),
and because property -- as a concept -- has recently become
important for him, owing to the breakup with Amy. First, he's not
yet signed divorce papers, and resents that she's living in their
house in Riverdale (spying on her in the driveway with Ted, he
quotes Talking Heads: "This is not my beautiful wife"). Second, he
resents Ted's incursion, accusing him of covetousness: "I know how
you like my things!"
While Mort appears oddly able to
handle Shooter's recurring visitations (feigning courage, he
brandishes a fire poker, and then a shovel), he's increasingly
unable to cope with the specter of Amy and Ted's romance. She hardly
helps, either, calling regularly to wonder about her own decisions
and ask for forgiveness: "It's my fault," she cries, or again, "Do
you think things would have been different if we hadn't lost the
baby?" (As a device to "explain" the couple's distress, this
unexplored tidbit of history is exceedingly trite.) Dreading Amy's
calls, Mort resorts to childish tactics, unplugging the phone or
making faces at the receiver when she does get through. At the same
time that she's working her distraught manipulations, Ted makes an
unannounced appearance, asking that Mort just sign the papers and
get it over with. "I don't respond well to intimidation," Mort
whines. "It makes me feel icky."
is, above all, about how icky Mort feels. Fortunately, as the plot
generated by this subjective state turns increasingly predictable,
Johnny Depp turns increasingly inventive and effectively comic. As
he's done in the past (see: Sleepy Hollow, Dead Man,
The Astronaut's Wife), the actor makes the uncanny seem both
familiar and startling. His face contorts and his fingers flutter,
suggesting depths of feeling -- betrayal, desire, delusion -- that
extend beyond the film's conventionally bloody machinations.
These grind into gear when,
bothered by Shooter's bullying and unconvinced that the local
Sheriff (Len Cariou) has enough on the ball to protect him, Mort
calls on a Manhattan detective he's hired previously, Ken Karsch
(Charles S. Dutton). Skeptical regarding the claim and Mort's sickly
pallor, Ken makes his own demand:" "I still need to know the truth.
Is he a regular wacko like you've had before?" The truth is it's
hard to be a celebrity writer, as King has depicted more than once.
It's also hard to be a wacko, by the way, as well as a plagiarist.
Mort's efforts to live down his
past might make for an intriguing and timely predicament (as Jayson
Blair is this very week making the talk show rounds, promoting his
book about being a plagiarist at the New York Times). Even
more interesting, perhaps, is the difficulty of plagiarizing from
oneself, surely a subject with which King has some experience, as
Secret Window makes obvious.
Charles S. Dutton
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may be
children under 13.