Pros: Depp; kicky ending.
Cons: Too drawn-out and enervating.
Johnny Depp's wry, witty, winning performance is the only real reason to get involved in the maddeningly uninvolving psychological thriller Secret Window. Depp plays Mort Rainey, a best-selling novelist who's experiencing quite the case of writer's block: holed up in his upstate New York lakeside cabin and clad in a tacky bathrobe, he can't even crank out more than three sentences at a time without either sitting back in his chair in dismay or retiring to the downstairs couch for quality nap time. In fact, he's so tremulously agitated and hopelessly blocked that the only time he feels he's actually accomplished something and allows himself a smile of satisfaction is when he holds down the Delete key on his laptop to obliterate whatever underwhelming text is taking up a small portion of its screen space. It's not terribly surprising that Mort's a bit of wreck, though, in light of his unpleasant ongoing divorce proceedings with his estranged wife (Maria Bello), who's living in their suburban home and occasionally sharing bed and board with her gruff fiancée (Timothy Hutton). And furthering his angst is the sudden appearance of a stalker named John Shooter (John Turturro), who speaks in a Southern drawl so thick molasses seems to drip off his vowels; he shows up at the cabin and threatens Mort with severe retribution if he doesn't come clean that he stole Shooter's story and passed it off as his own. The country bumpkin of a sheriff (Len Cariou) is of little help in the matter, so Mort engages the service of a stout private detective (Charles Dutton) to help diffuse the situation. Suffice to say, Mort finds that the facts are considerably more strange than any fiction he's dreamt up thus far (or are they?), and darned if his increasingly unhinged self isn't exuding a noticeable degree of menace (is it actually Shooter who should be more feared?).
The film is an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, and for anyone who's been reading King's books and/or seeing the screen adaptations over the past quarter of a century will be far from surprised in seeing one of his works serving as the source material here. After all, he's written about writers who've terrorized (The Shining), been terrorized (Misery), and both (The Dark Half), and Secret Window is more or less a compilation of their adaptations -- a miasma of junkyard car parts fitted upon a rusted-out chassis. The elderly sheriff could be Misery's Richard Farnsworth, the threatened wife The Shining's Shelly Duvall, and the helpful black man who gets axed (literally) by whitey The Shining's Scatman Crothers; and if these are too subtle, there's always the presence of Timothy Hutton, who starred as the teacher/writer with a serious split personality in The Dark Half. If any of this is intended to be slyly referential or truly ironic, it escaped me. (At least in 1985's fine Cat's Eye, the King references were limited to a fifteen-second bit during the prologue, which clearly served as a loving homage.) Then again, almost everything in Secret Window is similarly ill-defined. Is Mort a genuinely talented writer? If so, why did he once plagiarize? Did he do so because his own works weren't deemed as commercially viable, and he used the plagiarized story to gain a publisher? Or is he in fact a mediocre hack who used the plagiarized story to launch his career, and his legions of fans were so enamored of that story that they don't care that his subsequent ones are vastly inferior? Either way, the Shooter character has been concocted to personify Mort's guilty conscience, and it's an old conceit and it's lame. We don't even come to find out what kind of novels the man writes -- just what kind of snack chip he insistently munches on. (I won't divulge which one -- I don't further product placements.)
The screenplay is a mess, all right, but the direction isn't any better, and what makes this woefully depressing is that David Koepp, who bears responsibility for both, scored a considerable triumph with 1999's superb, underrated Stir of Echoes, which he also pulled double duty on. There, he showed a respect for character and structure, an affinity for assured pacing and succinct timing, and an imagination teeming with ideas and a gleeful sense of the macabre; it was far better than the similarly-themed, asinine The Sixth Sense of that year, and it succeeded at something very films of its genre are capable of -- scaring the daylights out of me. Koepp hasn't reimagined the King novella to fuse with a unique vision all his own the way Frank Darabont did in the outstanding The Shawshank Redemption, and he hasn't filled it in substantially enough to justify a big-screen expansion of it (which was a considerable flaw in Bryan Singer's clunky Apt Pupil). For his first directing gig in five years, you'd think Koepp, a veteran screenwriter who made his directorial debut in 1996 with the honorable failure The Trigger Effect, would have taken on something that stoked some real artistic passion within, yet there's not an iota of jeu d' esprit in his loquacious execution here. The sequences are imprecisely shaped, the camera movements never agile or expressive, and the reliance on stock 'Boo!' moments to generate scares vomitous; the film has zero atmosphere and tautness, and a mere five minutes in you already know you're going to have to exert effort to try to stay involved in it. Secret Window is so prevalently opaque you're left scratching your head as to why Koepp the Director is showing such pious respect for the vanilla hodgepodge Koepp the Writer has dished out.
Perhaps Koepp had such an undiluted love for King's novella that this tale of a frustrated writer spoke to him on a deeper level than it would, say, a non-writer, that he tinkered with it over the years in between his screenwriting gigs for other directors that by the time he got around to filming it he'd worked and reworked it so much that he lost sight of what about it spoke to him in the first place. When this happens, a writer who directs their own script (or a director who's salivated over someone else's script for years, even) runs the risk of having their film sense compromised, so they're oblivious to the possibility that what they see as lucid and intriguing in the material isn't coming off like that to the audience. Why else, then, can't Koepp plainly see that the too-deliberate pacing leaves the film bereft of sustained suspense throughout, that Turturro's hambone portrayal is so off-tone and facetious that it's as menacing as a case of the sniffles, that the moment we lay eyes on Mort's adorable cat we know it's toast, that millions of audience members have seen two high-profile films with an identical plot twist so most of us can see it coming from the next zip code over? I wasn't expecting anything particularly brilliant from the writer of calamities like Panic Room and Spider-Man, but I did hold out hope for something at least as keen and competent from the very same man who not only triumphed with Stir of Echoes but with Apartment Zero and Bad Influence, as well (even though they were scripted thirteen and fifteen years prior). The only thing Koepp manages to get right (aside from staying out of the stalwart Depp's way) is the epilogue, which gives off such a satisfying burst of fiendishly nasty energy that you're sadly made aware of just how comatose you've been rendered by the many, many minutes preceding it