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With: Johnny Depp, Maria Bello, John Turturro, Timothy Hutton
Written by: David Koepp, based on a story by Stephen King
Directed by: David Koepp
MPAA Rating: R for violence/terror, sexual content and language
Running Time: 96
Date: 03/12/2004

Secret Window (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

No Pane, No Gain

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a Stephen King story, Secret Window skimps in the plot and suspense department, but the excellent casting saves it. There are no real surprises here; King had already mined the psyche of an unhinged writer with more depth in his novel The Dark Half, which was made into a very good film by horror master George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) in 1993. Secret Window was written and directed by David Koepp, a very successful screenwriter and a not-so successful director. With the help of stylish, striking directors like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, David Fincher and Sam Raimi, Koepp's resume sparkles with such films as Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, Panic Room and Spider-Man. In other words, his somewhat flimsy scripts are easily fixed by a high sheen. But Koepp the director can't fix his own work. His previous film, the overly conventional ghost story Stir of Echoes (1999), is one example, and the transparent way Secret Window gives up its own secret is another.

Thankfully, Koepp cast Johnny Depp in his new film, and Depp's masterful performance spreads throughout, filling all the cracks and holes, making a highly entertaining -- if slightly corny -- film. Depp plays Mort Rainey, a writer of murder and horror stories who haunts an upstate New York lakeside cabin. His ex-wife (Maria Bello) -- divorce pending -- lives in their beautiful house, entertaining her new boyfriend (Timothy Hutton, who, incidentally, played the writer in "The Dark Half").

A stranger, John Shooter (John Turturrro) approaches Mort claiming that Mort plagiarized a short story. While Mort struggles to straighten everything out, terrible things begin to happen -- including screwdrivers sticking out of people's temples. Mort could fix everything if he could find a copy of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine with his version of the story in it, dated before Shooter's version. While Mort has at least a half a dozen options to do so, he insists on tracking down his own copy, which resides in his ex-wife's house. Despite the plot holes, Depp's nervy, scattered performance actually sells the idea that he wouldn't have considered the other options. He's just that obsessed.

Depp acts mostly by himself, walking around in a battered bathrobe, hair mussed, cracking his jaw from time to time. Like Lon Chaney or Buster Keaton, he tosses off endless bits of physical business as if they were little poems. He talks to himself and isn't afraid to look weak or perturbed. He feels like a real writer; you can actually see him thinking -- something that some critics have insisted only Gary Cooper could do. Like John Cusack, Depp brings his own ideas to the package, dripping his dialogue with his own witticisms (like the phrase "Snoopy dances") and spreading his own props around (such as a copy of Hunter S. Thompson's "The Rum Diary"). It's clear that if a lesser actor had been cast, say, Paul Walker or Heath Ledger, the film would have crumpled.

As Secret Window closed, I began to suspect that Koepp knew what he was doing all along. Not only did he specifically cast Dark Half veteran Hutton as if to comment on it, but he also goes out with an image of corn on the cob. It suggests popcorn -- a good, mindless time at the movies -- and also "corny." It worked. Ordinarily I don't do windows, but I'll gladly make an exception here.

(This review also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

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