Rated R. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. 4 stars.
Emptiness kills. Whether it manifests into murder or slowly eviscerates a person over decades, it is the culprit in so many untimely deaths. The scope of how each individual deals with emptiness is vast and fascinating. Some bury it in pretense and riches. Some stab at it with a pen or typewriter. Some become its lackey and commit atrocities in its name.
"The Secret in Their Eyes," a masterwork by Argentinean director Juan Jose Campenella, traverses 25 years of emptiness in the lives of victims, hoodlums and keepers of the peace. But a tale of emptiness has never been so fulfilling or alive as this Oscar-winning spectacle.
It starts in the mind of criminal investigation retiree Benjamin Esposito (the pensive silver fox Ricardo Darin). He is writing a novel based on a macabre rape and homicide case he worked in 1974 — a case without real resolution that left him shaken and gutted. Benjamin returns to his Buenos Aires workplace to dredge up information and reconnect with his beautiful, intelligent associate Irene, who is now a high-ranking judge.
The reunion is haunted by his memories, both of the slaying and his squandered chances at romancing Irene. His thoughts ping-pong between present day and the shocking circumstances behind the killing. Reality, fiction and wishful thinking blur at one thick, gripping junction.
Most of "Secret" unfolds in Benjamin's flashbacks or evidential findings. Through these jaunting avenues, we witness the very graphic demise of a young woman, and the equally heartbreaking hopelessness of her husband, Ricardo (Pablo Rago). When Benjamin discovers his own boss strong-armed two decoy suspects into jail for the crime, he takes it upon himself to seek true justice for the broken Ricardo.
The film, based on a book by Eduardo Sacheri, is a yo-yo. In most people's hands, it would be limp. A daring spin or two might arise, but it would be a mostly bleak endeavor. Under Campanella's leadership, it's a stunning exercise. The rising action seamlessly flows from a pulpy stakeout comedy (driven by comedian Guillermo Francella, as Benjamin's drunken Woody Allen-like partner, Sandoval) to gritty, unapologetic police drama. A chase scene amid thousands of soccer hooligans is especially white-knuckle and jarring — much like the "Bourne" thrill rides helmed by director Paul Greengrass.
Additionally, the backdrop of revolution-ravaged Argentina gives "Secret" its quavering pulse. Loyalties are frayed and forged at the blink of an eye. But Benjamin's determination — and the magnetism of top thespian Darin — over the course of the movie is constant. He is a hero not unlike Atticus Finch, striving to save those he cares about from themselves, and striving to save himself from the indefinites of his own life.
Tales of trials and injustice can come off as cold and gruff as a judge's gavel. But "The Secret in Their Eyes" is so rich and interesting. Each actor presents an immediate prism of emotion and passion — an impressive feat, considering the theme of the project is emptiness. In fact, it is one of the most stimulating and fulfilling film experiences one could have in the typically vapid movie-going months of spring.