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Secret Window (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 26, 2023


Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou, Joan Heney, John Dunn-Hill. Vlasta Vrana, Matt Holland, Gillian Ferrabee, Bronwen Mantel, Elizabeth Marleau, Kyle Allatt, Richard Jutras, Kevin Woodhouse, Vito DeFilippo and Sarah Allen.

Screenplay by David Koepp.

Directed by David Koepp.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Years ago, when I read Stephen King's novella Secret Window, Secret Garden, I thought it was a terrific story that never could be pulled off on film. Not that it wasn't an interesting story idea with many dramatic moments. It’s just that certain developments, particularly towards the end of the story, didn't seem to lend themselves to the cinema. (I won't tell you what they were. It would ruin the film's surprise, but people who have read the book will know what I mean.)

But since every word that King puts to paper eventually gets filmed, I guess it was only a matter of time. The nice surprise is what a sense of paranoid dread is spun by writer/director David Koepp (who wrote Panic Room and Spider-Man, as well as directing his chilling script for Stir of Echoes).

Johnny Depp plays Mort Rainey, a writer in turmoil. He is in the middle of getting a divorce after finding his wife (Maria Bello) in a hotel with another man (Timothy Hutton.) Mort allows her to keep the house on Long Island and moves into their summer cabin in the lonely woods of upper New York state. He is having a monumental bout of writer's block, desperately staring at a blank computer screen waiting for inspiration that never comes. Even the simplest tasks, like dressing and washing his hair, making phone calls, and signing the divorce papers, seem like just too much trouble for him. He takes long naps throughout the day so that he has a constant bedraggled and dazed look.

One afternoon (or is it morning or evening? Time has ceased to make much difference for Rainey) he is awakened from one of his naps by a mysterious stranger. John Shooter is a stern-looking, old-fashioned man with a bowler hat and a perpetual scowl. He claims that Mort somehow stole one of his stories and demands restitution. Mort refuses to accept the worn manuscript Shooter proffers and insists that he has never heard of the man or his story. However, he finds the manuscript on his porch and curiosity gets the best of him. It turns out that the story was an almost dead match for a story Rainey wrote about a wife-killer called Secret Window.

Of course, since this is based on a King story, it isn't as easily disproved as you'd expect. Rainey was drinking heavily at the time he wrote the story. There was also apparently some similar past incident that Rainey angrily brushes past when it is mentioned to him by his ex-wife and a security consultant (Charles S. Dutton) he has used over the years. Rainey can prove that he wrote the story before Shooter claims if he can find a copy of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine that the story was published in. However, things keep getting in the way of Rainey getting the proof and Shooter becomes more and more foreboding. He threatens Rainey's ex-wife, kills their dog, and burns her house down. Then dead bodies start turning up.

This stuff only works as well as the cast, and in this respect, the movie is first rate. In his first real role since his breakout in Pirates of Caribbean (he had more of a supporting role in Once Upon a Time in Mexico), Johnny Depp once again proves that he is the quirkiest leading man in the movies. Mort Rainey is a wilderness of ticks and grimaces and dazed incomprehension. A man who was never quite sane is seen trying desperately to fight tide of rising dementia, and yet Depp portrays him with a bit of humor and guile.

Turturro's character is much more one-note, a dispenser of Puritan justice, but he is an effective villain. Bello does more intriguing work (like her recent The Cooler and Auto Focus roles), despite the fact that her character is really only there to apologize for betraying Rainey and to worry about his state of mind. Timothy Hutton also has some confrontations with Depp which crackle with tension. Charles S. Dutton has some electric scenes, too, allowing a clear outside perspective into the sinister little tug of wars going on.

In the end, the story works better than I thought it would on celluloid. However, the ending doesn't quite work visually, just like I originally thought when I read the novella. Even though I think Koepp did tweak King's original climax, (at least it is different than I remember the ending being,) it doesn't necessarily make it work better. Secret Window is a great set-up with a bit of a weak pay-off. Which, come to think of it, describes all too many Stephen King movies. (3/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: March 13, 2004.

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