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Secret Window   C+

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: David Koepp
Writer: David Koepp (based on the novella by Stephen King)
Cast: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton.

Review by Rob Vaux

Making a living creatively often walks hand-in-hand with a unique neurosis. Few people are lucky enough to parlay artistic abilities into a viable career, and those who do often wonder if they're getting away with something. Are they really talented? Do people really want to pay for their work? The doubts come in the black of night and linger like a bad hangover, as if at any moment someone's going to walk up and say "the jig is up kid, get a job in a bank." Mix it with a little success and a fragile ego, and the results can be, well, terrifying.

That's the premise which Secret Window endeavors to realize: a psychological thriller built around the raging insecurities of the artistic mind. Actor Johnny Depp provides the test subject, playing a famous author with a healthy gaggle of demons. Director David Koepp provides the lab maze, a lakeside cabin two doors down from the one in Evil Dead. Both men have a strong feel for what they want, and the skills to bring it to life. So why, then, does Secret Window ultimately feel incomplete?

It could be the story's trappings, which have been around the block a few times. Depp's Mort Rainey has come to the cabin in the midst of a bitter divorce, hoping to write and perhaps regain some peace of mind. He's alone, in the woods, often at night; the atmosphere just screams for cut-rate jolts, and Koepp isn't able to resist them. The fulcrum is a creepy stalker named John Shooter (John Turturro, great as always), who claims that Rainey plagiarized one of his stories. He possesses the usual Menacing Boogeyman powers -- appearing and disappearing at will, entering the house with no signs of passage, messily disposing of any pain-in-the-ass interlopers -- which Koepp parlays into a typical array of funhouse scares.

The good news is that it works... for a time at least. Despite their triteness, there's plenty of punch to the grab-your-date theatrics, and Secret Window retains a sense of playfulness without losing its serious core. The screenplay (written by Koepp from a novella by Stephen King) gives Depp a juicy character to run with and some choice dialogue to recite. With an actor of his caliber, few things are more gratifying. More importantly, the film provides a nice subtext to the bumps in the night, as Shooter becomes a cipher for Rainey's guilt and obsessions. Fame has delivered unto him a surly-mouthed doppelganger: quiet and patient, but possessing infinite hostility. And is there something to his stony claims of plagiarism? Has Rainey committed some sin that he can't admit, even to himself? By exploring the murky corners of his hero's creativity, Koepp brings real intelligence to the proceedings, while milking the more mundane divorce drama (Maria Bello enters the picture as Rainey's ex) for a few extra anxieties as well.

The intelligence, however, isn't all-encompassing, and Secret Window suffers dearly for it. While the knee-jerk jolts function well enough and the character development is intriguing, the overall storyline becomes dreadfully predictable. Its twists and turns fail to catch us off-guard, and the central revelation is neither surprising nor particularly effective. Some of the fault lies in the source material, which borrows too heavily from too many earlier pieces. And like many King adaptations, it goes completely haywire by the final third. A meaty setup slowly gives way to implausibility, then risibility, then full-bore camp. Not even Depp can save the film's climax, which thuddingly trips on the clichés it had thus far skirted, and may inspire fits of giggling for years to come. Koepp salvages a certain symmetry, but by then there's little left of the psychological sediments that promised so much. Had it been less derivative, it might be easier to overlook; as is stands, however, its failings are too overt to deny. Secret Window finally gives us less than it takes, straining for an originality that it can't quite reach. For all its technical prowess, it can't shake the feeling that we've seen this all before... and that it was probably better the first time.

Review published 03.12.2004.

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