Oh the horror 

A review of Secret Window

click to enlarge Johnny Depp and John Turturro in Secret Window.
  • Johnny Depp and John Turturro in Secret Window.

Secret Window (PG-13)
Sony Pictures

At a lakeside cabin twee enough for any L.L. Bean catalog, Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) suffers writer's block and then some. Sleeping his troubles away, the unkempt novelist ruminates over a marriage whose demise was owed as much to his alcoholism as his wife's infidelity.

Rainey blunders around his home in a chewed-up bathrobe, his hair a study in bed-head expressionism. But writer's block becomes the least of his troubles when one summer morning his door starts knocking.

Based on a Stephen King novella, David Koepp's Secret Window contains all the horror movie requisites: The paranoid protagonist (who in Stephen King fashion happens to be a writer), the verbally dexterous, omnipresent villain (John Turturro), an isolated wilderness setting and a host of supporting characters so disposable that they might as well start out with axes in their skulls.

The film gets in trouble early on when Rainey starts a supposedly wry series of exchanges with his dog. Note that when a film relies on doggy reaction shots for comedic effect ( la As Good As it Gets), it's invariably a harbinger of bad things to come. Secret Window proves no exception.

Outfitted in a get-up that could be described as sporty-Amish-meets-Southern-Gothic, Mississippi farmer John Shooter (Turturro) fills Rainey's doorframe bent on payback. "You stole my story," he says in a drawl that's at once Faulknerian and oddly reminiscent of Better Off Dead's demonic paperboy (Two dollars!).

Shooter continues to insist Rainey plagiarized his story and, worse still, ruined its ending. Baffled, Rainey insists the piece appeared in a magazine years before Shooter claimed he wrote it. The two soon broker a deal: If Rainey can prove he wrote the tale, Shooter will put himself on the first Mississippi-bound pickup truck. If he can't, well, the murder of Rainey's dog (via screwdriver) offers a good indication of the Mississippian's preferred form of conflict resolution.

Concurrent with this dilemma, Rainey is forced to deal with the finalization of his divorce. Trailing behind his wife Amy (Maria Bello) is her new flame, Timothy Hutton, the slightly arrogant though largely nondescript man for whom she left Rainey.

Amy's emotional ambiguity toward her soon-to-be ex-husband could have made for an interesting subplot, especially since, as she proved in The Cooler, Bello is a capable actress. Unfortunately, her furtive checkup calls to Rainey merely serve as an excuse for his unraveling.

Facilitating Rainey's meltdown is Shooter's charge of plagiarism, which we soon learn is something of a recurring demon as Rainey's lawyers had hushed up a similar incident years ago.

All these factors seem to lead toward Rainey's day of reckoning, until the film posits that maybe Shooter is just a byproduct of the writer's own making. This trite exit strategy, a genre fart really, serves to obliterate any concern for Rainey's life-and-death predicament. Instead, it's just a Rod Serlingesque psychodrama.

The ever-lovable Depp makes this chore of a film bearable at times with his quirky ticks and wry witticisms. However, saving this film is well beyond his talents. The often engaging but rarely restrained Turturro is more desperate than menacing in his rendering of an aggrieved writer whose cornpone shtick is about as convincing as Jim Hightower's.

Adding insult to injury is an ending that would be funny if Koepp had set out to produce a genre farce. Neither scary, nor satisfying, the final scene is like witnessing Hannibal Lecter taking a wrong turn into the valley of the Children of The Corn.

Secret Window has a few bumps in the night that frighten in the way horror films usually do: When will the bad guy (or the body) pop up out of nowhere? But aside from shouting boo, Koepp's effort only begs the question of how it brought so many talents along for an unremarkable ride to the video store.

-- John Dicker

Tinseltown, Cinemark 16

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