If you’re not tired of hearing people go on and on about Johnny Depp, let me ramble just a little about how glad I am that he’s apparently decided to start doing more purely commercial, mainstream films. He’s always been a reliably quirky performer, but he seldom appeared in anything resembling a blockbuster. Now that things like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” are no longer beneath him, we’re able to see him more often (and in more theaters), and the movies are better for having him.
No one disputes he was the best thing about “Pirates,” and those who saw the insanity that was “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” recall him being a stand-out there, too. Now here’s “Secret Window,” a deliciously pulpy thriller in which Depp plays an author tormented by a man accusing him of plagiarism. Both Depp and the character, Mort Rainey, have a snarky insouciance about them, even in the face of mortal danger. It breaks the tension into laughter, which could be considered a bad thing in a thriller, but honestly, how scared were we gonna get? With Depp, it becomes equal parts comedy and suspense, and the mix is nice.
Mort is a successful Stephen King-ish author (not surprising, given that King wrote the story this is based on) who is currently going through a less-than-amicable divorce from his wife Amy (Maria Bello). She’s taken his city house with her new boyfriend Ted (Timothy Hutton), so Mort’s exiled to their homey cabin in upstate New York, where he spends as much time napping as he does writing.
It is the cabin where Mort is visited by John Shooter (John Turturro), a Mississippi redneck who claims Mort’s short story “Secret Window” was stolen from him and, what’s worse, that Mort screwed up the ending when he stole it. Shooter says he wrote his in 1997 — a-ha! Mort can prove his was published two years before that, meaning that if anything, Shooter copied Mort, not the other way around.
But Shooter is not the sort of fellow to be dissuaded by something as simple as chronology. He begins to harass Mort in traditional movie-stalker fashion, i.e., his actions become increasingly menacing but only vaguely illegal, leaving the victim with no help from the police. In this case, the town sheriff (Len Cariou) is too old and good-natured to understand something as devious as this anyway, so Mort enlists the aid of his lawyer (Charles Dutton) to help him keep his cabin safe.
Hints are dropped delicately about Mort’s previous run-ins with crazy fans and, apparently, with allegations of plagiarism. We are also privy to more than a few remarks about the dissolution of his marriage and the things that led to it. Some of these are only red herrings, but some do figure into the final twist (which is rather ordinary and not terribly surprising).
Like most Stephen King stories, this one taps into a particular emotion and finds ways to make it frightening. In this case, it’s a writer’s anguish over wrong choices, both literary and personal, that serves as the springboard for horror, and King exploits it well.
The screenplay was adapted and directed by David Koepp, who has previously written such enjoyable fare as “Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room” and “Spider-Man.” His track record demonstrates he knows his way around a story, and that he can write something with mass appeal without being stupid.
“Secret Window” fits exactly into that pattern of respectable, honest fun, and Depp knows just how to play it. It’s not a great film, simply because there’s so little to it, but darned if it’s not a fun couple of hours.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )