‘Secret in Their Eyes’ brings out the best in Julia Roberts

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When Julia Roberts’ Jess is told by a friend, “You look like you’re a million years old” in “Secret in Their Eyes,” there’s not a speck of insult in the observation.

It’s said with heartbreaking compassion, and it is the truth, for Jess has become a walking ghost after suffering the worst imaginable loss.

Writer-director Billy Ray’s Americanization of the Argentine film that won the Academy Award for best foreign language film of 2010 features major overhauls in story and character. (In the original, the character now played by Roberts was a man whose wife was murdered.)

What DOESN’T get lost in translation is what made “El Secreto De Sus Ojos” so effective: the visceral, devastating empathy we feel when a horrible injustice is committed and it ruins multiple lives; the haunted looks in the eyes of a trio of characters who will never be able to shake off the events of long ago; the lush and lurid film noir touches; and the air of melancholy hanging heavy over a pursuit of justice because we know there’s no such thing as true justice, not in these circumstances.

“Secret in Their Eyes” jumps back and forth from 2002 to present day. (Ray’s a big believer in hair as immediate indicators of which era we’re in. For the women, it’s the hairstyle; for the men, it’s a touch of gray at the temples, or a loss of hair in the 2015 scenes.)

In the 2002 scenes, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Ray and Nicole Kidman’s Claire are new additions to a joint Counter Terrorism Unit in Los Angeles. Ray’s an FBI investigator from a hardscrabble Brooklyn background; Claire’s an Ivy League sensation in the district attorney’s office. That Claire is sporting an impressive engagement rock and appears to be way out of Ray’s league matters not to Ray, who takes one look at her and is a goner. (He’s also too much of a gentleman to act on his feelings right away, if ever.)

Julia Roberts’ Jess is a seasoned FBI investigator who takes great pleasure in ribbing Ray about his office-cliché crush on Claire. Jess is a single mom who clearly loves her work and her colleagues, and is absolutely crazy about her daughter Carolyn (a charming Zoe Graham), who will be moving to college in just a few months.

(We’re going to have to spoiler it up just a little bit here, although I’m not revealing anything that hasn’t been given away in the trailers and in promotional interviews for the film. Still, if you want to see “Secret in Their Eyes” without knowing anything other than it’s a powerful gut punch of a thriller, skip a few paragraphs or set aside this review until after your viewing experience.)

When a body is found in a dumpster next door to a mosque that’s under surveillance, Ray and Jess are called to the scene.

Ray is the first to see the body. We don’t see the victim. We see Ray, who has been buckled as if hit by a prizefighter.

The victim is Carolyn. Jess’s daughter.

In the blink of an eye, Jess goes from laser-focused agent, loyal friend and loving mother to an irreparably broken shell of a human being. (From the scene where Jess learns her daughter is gone all the way through the very last of the moments that take place 13 years later, Julia Roberts gives one of her most authentic and least movie-star-like performances. She has a few beats that are as good as anything she’s ever done.)

With a noir-ish score from Emilio Kauderer and some darkly gorgeous cinematography from Daniel Moder (Roberts’ husband) setting the tone, “Secret in Their Eyes” weaves the search for Carolyn’s killer through a labyrinth of law enforcement politics, investigative land mines, personal and professional betrayals, and the lasting reverberations echoing like ghostly whispers through the souls of Jess, Claire and Ray.

Joe Cole is memorably loathsome as Marzin, the government informant who is the chief suspect in the case. Dean Norris from “Breaking Bad” and Michael Kelly from “House of Cards” are in their natural comfort zones as law enforcement types who approach their jobs from very different perspectives.

Nicole Kidman has the least interesting of the three main roles as Claire, the career-driven attorney, but she does fine work. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the heart and soul of the film as Ray, who in his own way is just as obsessed with bringing down Marzin as Jess herself. It’s a first-rate performance.

As was the case with the 2010 film, a few coincidences and chance encounters stretch credulity. And you might see a few of the twists coming a bit sooner than the screenplay intends.

But “Secret in Their Eyes” isn’t intended as a mere guessing game about who did it and whether or not he’ll have to pay for it. At times it’s literally about the buried truths or untold sins in the eyes of Claire, who tells herself she’s moved on from 2002, and Ray, who blames himself for the tragic events of the day.

And Jess, whose eyes are so lost in grief you wonder if she even sees what’s in front of her.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

STX Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Billy Ray. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references). Opens Friday at local theaters. 

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