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Secret Window

The process of writing can be long, arduous, and terribly solitary. (Witness the lateness of this very review.) To work your way through whatever blocks you, holing up in a remote area has its pros and cons, especially if you're actually a character in a movie. For however successful it may be, writing is an internal process. At least until a psychopath shows up on your cabin doorstep claiming that you stole one of his stories for your very own.

In Secret Window, it takes screenwriter/director David Koepp a while to guide star Johnny Depp to that moment of confrontation. Few filmmakers could make the internal writer's struggle interesting in the meantime, but with a star like Depp, the job is easier than it should be. Even though Depp's Mort Rainey sleeps a lot to stave off frustration and perhaps simmering rage, the actor somehow makes it compelling.

Working pretty closely from a Stephen King novella, Koepp painstakingly delineates all the distractions Rainey finds for himself. The writer has a more difficult block than usual, as he's also trying to work through his emotions at having found his wife, Amy (the excellent Maria Bello), in bed with another man (Timothy Hutton). As a man, Rainey cannot move forward until he has buried his past.

When John Shooter (John Turturro) appears with his accusation, it's like picking at a hardly healed scab for Rainey. Somewhere in his past career, he had plagiarized a story, and though we never get the details, it's clear that this was part of what poisoned his relationship with his wife. This time, however, he should be able to prove his innocence, but Shooter has a way of disrupting his focus.

King has played similar tunes before about the relationship between a writer and his craft. (One such variation, The Dark Half, even starred Hutton.) To his credit, Koepp and his team do a decent job of giving King's mind games visual life without being too flashy. It's tough to do with any subtlety, as last year's Dreamcatcher bears witness. But here, the slow erosion of a man's mind works on us almost unconsciously, as befits a director who likes to work in low keys.

That's not to say that Secret Window is without suspense. Once it gets going, it never lets go of its high pitch, even when quiet scenes relegate the tension to the background. Koepp keeps one daring element of King's story for the movie - Shooter's first victim is a dog. And if a movie is willing to kill a dog right off the bat (one with cataracts, no less), you know that it is willing to do anything.

As is its star. Depp deserves the term "best actor of his generation," probably moreso because he eschews it. Few actors dedicate themselves to the "bed head" so aggressively; Depp sports an unruly mane that even when combed looks unkempt. But he is not an actor that lets a look do the work for him. Rainey clearly comes from deep inside.

Though occasionally charming, Rainey is more than a little pathetic and possibly impotent. The camera rarely leaves the character, nor does Depp. In scenes when he talks to Amy, you can see the hope that her new relationship isn't working out, and the bit of self-loathing that he has that hope.

Depp has an underutilized foil in Turturro. Borrowing a bit from Robert DeNiro's Max Cady, Turturro gives Shooter a coiled sense of menace that never really gets to lash out. Every scene he is in has an extra shot of creepiness, but it does not quite reach the pay off most audiences would want.

In fact, considering that Shooter wants to achieve "the perfect ending" to his story, the movie sort of fails to achieve it. It ends up rather poetic and daring, perhaps, after a shocking climax, but it doesn't really add up. However, it will be memorable, and maybe that's all that really matters.

Had Depp not just become huge in the eyes of Hollywood, Secret Window probably would not be getting the push that it is. This is no blockbuster; like Koepp's earlier work, Stir of Echoes, this is a more introspective thriller that may actually give the audience something to think about. So be warned. But you will be rewarded.


Derek McCaw

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