[[Note: "The Secrets We Keep" is largely be at indoor movie theaters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While the purpose of this review goes deeper than binary recommendation to discuss the film's merits as an artistic work in context of its time, we encourage our readers to continue exercising the latest safety guidelines from health authorities and consider them if and when you may decide to visit the cinema to watch this movie.]]
Maja is on high alert. While watching her child play at the local park, her attention has been snatched by a dark car driving down the street. Is she always this way, or has something set off the alarm bells in her head? Maternal instincts might be cause for the concern behind her eyes, and actress Noomi Rapace is so good – and the best asset of her new movie – that an anxious glance is enough to spark our suspicions as well.
At the same time, our instincts as movie-watchers tell us that no good often comes from a mother telling their son to “Stay put!” on that jungle gym while she heads off. So what is it that’s got her so paranoid? Who is she afraid of being in that car that’s now left our sight?
“The Secrets We Keep,” which the above scene dutifully opens with tension and understated flair from director Yuval Adler, is one of those thrillers that you wish had kept its cards close to its chest. Here is a classic case of a movie cashing in on its strengths much too early, thus morphing from a compellingly layered story to one that’s all too eager to begin peeling those layers back before we can fully appreciate how many there are.
Judging by the sleek, pristine production design of Nate Jones (whose work could also be seen in “Cut Throat City,” another 2020 release), it’s sometime in the middle of the 20th century, not long after the end of the war. At home with her family – her husband, Lewis, is played by Chris Messina, their child by young Jackson Dean Vincent – the thought of that mysterious car lingers in Maja’s mind, a cerebral itch that refuses to go away no matter how much she scratches at it. Or perhaps refuses to. We come to learn that she is Romanian, and has some lingering trauma associated with the war.
But the extent of that trauma is kept, yes, a secret from Lewis…that is, until Maja goes from being a borderline passive protagonist to a fiercely active one, and brings a man home in her car’s trunk, bound and gagged. She’s convinced her victim, who says his name is Carl (Joel Kinnaman), is a former Nazi who was present at a point of particular torment for Maja’s family some 15 years before. He insists he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And the movie’s parameters suddenly shift—what was, for a little while, a story keeping us on our toes with the mystery of Maja’s perspective becomes a morality play constructed of predictable beats that plant our feet more firmly on solid ground. It’s an unfortunate pivot, and nearly fatal for an all-over-the-place film, if not for Rapace’s spectacularly committed performance.
Most well-known as the introverted, techno-savvy avenger Lisbeth Salandar from the Swedish-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” trilogy, Rapace may not bring as much TNT to “The Secrets We Keep” as in her iconic role, but she’s no less unpredictable. As Maja tries to wrangle a confession from her kidnapee, her tightly wound confidence slowly loosened by wrenching self-doubt, Rapace effectively sketches her character’s revisiting of a haunted past with nervy energy and frazzled inner quandary. Western audiences might see something familiar in her performance of desperation; her terrifying C-section-from-Hell in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” remains one of the more stomach-churning sequences in a recent American blockbuster. Here, the horrors are rooted in a history that may or may not have been disfigured by time.
The movie around Rapace, though, struggles to cover up its blandness. It’s effective on a level of craft, especially when it comes to composer John Paesano’s deliciously conspiratorial score (like many thing in the film, Paesano’s contributions are most tantalizing in the opening act). But the narrative of “The Secrets We Keep” (with a screenplay penned by Adler and Ryan Covington) is let down by its search for ways to stretch its premise to 100 minutes, which leads to Maja questioningly befriending Carl’s wife down the street in order to find more answers about his past. She’s trying to justify her actions, clearly, but these bits are clumsily handled, even with a solid Amy Seimetz along for the ride as the wife and mother waiting for Carl to come home. Elsewhere, if you’re hoping this is one man-tied-up-in-the-basement movie that resists the temptation of a perilously ill-timed (read: perfectly timed) visit from a local cop, prepare to be disappointed.
The drama eventually shifts from occupying the space between captor/captee to forging a chasm between Maja and Lewis, and it’s here that “The Secrets We Keep” finds a bit of dimension as a character study of post-war identity. We visit scenes from Maja’s past as she’s trying to decipher them, but there’s not much epiphany awaiting us so much as we’re waiting for epiphany to surface in Maja’s present dilemma.
Instead, it’s Rapace – her hair streaked with paranoid sweat, stature gone limp from hesitation – who continues to anchor our investment as Maja tries to slow a countdown to psychological implosion, while also yearning for faith from Lewis, who isn’t sure what to believe. Adler and Covington continue to skirt these implications with ramshackle focus. Our wondering if Maja is seeking justice or closure seems like it should be their natural motivation, but the question ends up stilted in the face of a rushed crescendo and confused moral standpoints. Did we just see her run from her past, accept it or confront it?
"The Secrets We Keep" is rated R for strong violence, rape, some nudity, language and brief sexuality.
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz
Directed by Yuval Adler
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