I can in good conscience say that “Secret Window” is not among the bottom rung of Steven King films reserved for the likes of “Maximum Overdrive” and “Sleepwalkers,” though if it weren’t for the game cast, it might have sunk into “Mangler” territory. Adapted for screen and directed by David Koepp (who directed “Stir of Echoes” and wrote a handful of Hollywood Blockbusters, including “Spiderman”), the new film feels boxed in by the macabre master’s source material. The story for “Secret Window” is one of those King churned out during his most prolific years, and it has the familiar ring of many of his second-tier work. It’s interesting in theory, but execution is too paint-by-numbers bland to be of any real interest. This would be straight-to-video fair if not for its cooler-than-thou geek-demigod turned super-star Oscar nominee of the year.
Johnny Depp plays King alter-ego Mort Rainey, a writer in the midst of a painful divorce living in his cabin somewhere in rural New York. While napping one afternoon a lumbering lunatic clad like a farmer from 1860s Pennsylvania (John Turturro) comes rapping on his door. Turturro’s John Shooter claims Rainey plagiarized one of his stories, and to add insult to injury, got the ending wrong. Shooter demands Rainey fix the ending and give him proper credit, Rainey holds the story was his own and he can prove it by showing the crazy farmer its original publication date. This all seems as if it would be quite easy to do, and the film doesn’t really attempt to show why it isn’t. Couldn’t the date be easily found on the internet? Why does Rainey think this will slow the crazy Shooter, who has already killed a pooch and burned down Rainey’s ex-wife’s (Maria Bello) house? Plot holes big enough to drive an Escalade through, this can mean only one thing: convenient twist ending!
While I won’t spoil anything, it’s disappointing how trite and unoriginal the ending turns out to be. A few times, Koepp seems to be heading into old-school exploitation territory, and that would have made for a more entertaining film. However, it ultimately attempts to be high-brow “thriller,” which sinks the fun faster than Bello’s whiney performance. However, distaste registered, Depp takes his unbelievably bland role and transcends it into an observant character study. Whether
he’s strangling the telephone out of anger or attempting to reason with the maniacal Shooter, Depp is always fun to watch onscreen. He is at once an entirely new character and an amalgam of all of the other characters he’s ever played. There is a hint of Hunter S. Thompson, as well as Bill Blake from “Dead Man” and Dean Corso from “The Ninth Gate” in his Rainey, though it is nothing we’ve seen him do before. He understands how over-the-top the material is, and attempts to subvert the pretension of Koepp and King by playing Rainey a few notches north of normal. Anyone else in this role and “Secret Window” would have been as bland and predictable as “Cold Creek Manor” or any number of other star-headlining “thrillers.”
If Depp overplays slightly, the Turturro might as well be chowing down on the set. Shooter is so loony he’s funny, and
Turtorro may be the only actor alive who could overact so much and come up with a fun performance. Think of his few-minute cameo in the decidedly not-horror “The Big Lebowski” as the bowling god Jesus? His Mississippi drawl is laughable, but he’s just crazy enough that you never doubt how ugly things might get. Sadly, with a PG-13 rating, the ugly is mostly regulated to quick shots and loud sound effects. Charles S. Dutton (as a body-guard for hire) and Timothy Hutton (as Bello’s new, decidedly uncool main squeeze) round out the impressive cast.
We should award them all for making what should have been an utterly un-watchable two-hour bore into a rather entertaining pulpy mess. Ultimately, this could be a high-end straight-to-video treat, so my suggestion is to wait until video and save yourself a couple of bucks. And only bring about half your brain so as not to spoil the surprise.