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"SECRET WINDOW"
(2004) (Johnny Depp, John Turturro) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Suspense/Thriller: A writer must deal with a seemingly deranged stranger who wants justice served regarding his claim that the author previously stole and published his work.
PLOT:
Mort Rainey (JOHNNY DEPP) is a novelist living in a cabin on the lake who's seen better days. Not only did he discover his wife, Amy (MARIA BELLO), in bed with another man, Ted (TIMOTHY HUTTON), six months earlier, but the thought of that and their pending divorce has left him with writer's block.

Spending most of his time sleeping on his tattered sofa, Mort's status goes from bad to worse when a stranger, John Shooter (JOHN TURTURRO), shows up at his doorstep one day, claiming the author stole and published the work he previously wrote.

Mort claims innocence, but Shooter is intent on the writer making things right and warns him that this matter is just between them. Given just three days to prove he wrote it before the stranger takes action, Mort seeks help from local Sheriff Dave Newsome (LEN CARIOU), but the lawman doesn't seem too concerned.

Mort then turns to New York detective Ken Karsch (CHARLES S. DUTTON) who previously helped him in a similar matter and agrees to take care of Shooter. Yet, as Mort tries to deal with that and come to terms with Amy wanting to finalize their divorce, little does he know how things will unexpectedly spiral out of control.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Mr. T may have pitied "the fool," but for me the sympathy goes out to the human species known as writers. Most who attempt to make a living in that profession, and those who are successful often face a myriad of internal and external conflicts.

If it's not writer's block or tortured soul syndrome, there are the editors who butcher the work, producers and publishers who just don't get what you write, and critics and readers/viewers who are just as likely to tear up you and your work as they are to praise it.

For Paul Sheldon, his problem stemmed from his number one fan, while Jack Torrance found that all work and no play made him a very dull boy indeed when working in a haunted hotel. Now one can add Morton Rainey to the mix. His problem concerns an issue often found in the writing world -- accusations of plagiarism.

While that might not sound like the catalyst for a suspense thriller, one must understand that all three characters have emanated from the creative mind of novelist Stephen King, an author who's likely to have faced all sorts of inner and external demons while plying his trade.

The character and his dilemma originated in the novella, "Secret Window, Secret Garden," that, like many of King's previous works, has now been adapted for the big screen as the truncated "Secret Window." Starring Johnny Depp as the troubled writer and John Turturro as his tormentor, the film comes to us via the hands of David Koepp who previously helmed "Stir of Echoes" and wrote "Panic Room."

For a while -- actually quite a bit of the film -- the trio take us on a "fun," suspense-filled ride as we watch Turturro's character turn the screws on Depp's as he tries to get himself out of a bad situation. The cast and crew have wisely added various nuances to the proceedings that give the film a bit more depth than the standard thriller. While there's the usual array of red herrings -- and you wondered why things smelled fishy from time to time -- there's also fun little bits of dialogue, humor and character exploration that set the film above many of its brethren.

Although none of it's terribly complex or original -- savvy viewers will likely see elements lifted from or at least quite similar to a host of other thrillers from bygone years -- for the most part it works in keeping us guessing about what's really going on and how things will ultimately turn out. Unfortunately, the latter part proves to be the film's disappointing undoing.

Near the end of the film, one of the characters states that the only thing that matters is the end of the story, and that this one (referring to a written work he's penned but also a wink to the picture in which both appear) is perfect. Alas, that's far from the case. And the problem isn't that it's predictable, although some viewers will peg the explanation before it's revealed. It's that the big surprise comes off as hokey and feels like a letdown after the setup and follow-thru of nine-tenths of the film.

I obviously can't go into the details without ruining the "surprise" and in its defense, it does explain and wrap up everything that occurred before it. It's just that the ending feels like a lame, cop-out that doesn't flawlessly fit in with the rest of the effort. Which is too bad because other parts are quite good, including the acting (aside from the requisite red herring related behavior).

As usual, Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," "Once Upon a Time in Mexico") runs the show and brings a great deal more to his character than presumably was originally on paper. It's those aforementioned nuances that make him such a terrific and entertaining performer here and in his other work and you thus simply can't take your eyes off him for fear of missing a subtle look, movement or mannerism that adds depth to the role.

Turturro is quite good as the menacing accuser/stalker, although I would have liked to have seen his character get a more creative in what he does to torment the writer. What's there certainly works from a boogeyman suspense factor (and everything makes sense by the end), but some additional creative flourishes would have made his character that much more fun.

Maria Bello ("The Cooler," "Auto Focus") delivers another good and believable performance as the estranged wife, while it's nice to see Timothy Hutton ("Sunshine State," "The General's Daughter") in a major film again. Charles S. Dutton ("Against the Ropes," "Gothika") is fine as a detective hired to take care of the problem, but his character rings a bit too familiar with a similar one in the remake of "Cape Fear."

As was the case with the filmmaker's previous efforts, there are some efficiently staged, taut moments of characters in peril. And with Depp delivering another superb performance, everything seemed right for a potentially brilliant thriller.

It's just too bad that the ending had to come along and nearly ruin everything. Not being familiar with the original literary work, I can't say if things play out the same way and/or are more acceptable or tolerable there. Whatever the case, it just doesn't work that well here.

Like a disappointing and shockingly sour dessert following a brilliant dinner, the finale here simply leaves a bad taste in the viewer's mouth and will likely lessen one's appreciation of what preceded it. Accordingly, "Secret Window" rates as just a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed March 9, 2004 / Posted March 12, 2004


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