The year is 2004. Johnny Depp is then still considered a serious actor and a few years away from being typecasted as the crazy-but-funny eccentric buffoon he has portrayed in countless movies since. Depp is indeed a very talented artist and can litterally give life to any kind of character he wants, hence why I believe it’s very sad that he seems to be recycling his performances... Don’t get me wrong ; as much as I love Jack Sparrow, I kind of miss the Johnny Depp who gave us Donnie Brasco (1997), From Hell (2001), Blow (2001) and, obviously, Secret Window. So what do I have to say about the film itself ? As a huge fan of both Stephen King & David Koepp, I thought it was a perfect adaptation of the short story on which it is based and perhaps even better (more on that later) but there is still a problem ; to me, the plot was quite predictable and felt like something I had seen before. That might have been a reason why the film was only a minor box office success upon release, grossing 92 900 000$ out of a 40 000 000$ budget and explain why it is now largely overlooked in Depp’s filmography. That's a shame, as Secret Window otherwise remains a terrific piece of entertainment, made with taste and style.
The plot is revolving around a theme that Stephen King had already exploited with great success in The Shining (1977) and Misery (1987) ; the interior demons of a writer.
Depp stars as Mort Rainey, a recently divorced author who decides to take some time off at his cottage. Unfortunately for Rainey, John Shooter (John Turturro), an unbalanced wannabe writer, tracks him down, claiming that Rainey plagiarized his work. However, there might be more to Shooter than meets the eye...
Secret Window is an adaptation of a Stephen King short story titled Secret Window, Secret Garden, which appeared in Four Past Midnight, published in 1990. I have read the short story and seen the film (more than once) and while both are entertaining and well made, something is missing in order to have a truly suspenseful story ; the element of surprise. Warning : spoilers ahead !
I can't imagine anyone not guessing that Depp's character (Mort Rainey) is actually John Shooter himself. Everything is just so obvious ! Again, we need to put things in perspective ; the film was made almost 14 years after the story was published and by then, this kind of turnaround endind was already a cliché, being used in plenty of book and films. That's perhaps why I guessed the ending quite easily while I was reading and I must admit it kind of lessened the power of it, no matter how well written it is (King is a truly gifted writer). However, I must also say that I can’t really tell if the ending was easy to guess for those who had only seen the film. Director and screenwriter David Koepp drastically changed the final act ; in the book, Mort is killed before he gets to murder his wife and her new boyfriend while in the movie, he kills them both and uses their bodies as fertilizer for his corn (just like in Sowing Season, the story Shooter claims he had copied). I much prefer Koepp's ending as it brings the story full circle and leaves a stronger impression. However, the main plot twist about Shooter's identity seemed to me as predictable as in the book version. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed Secret Window a lot and I revisited it quite a few times since its release. What I like the most about it is Depp’s performance and the mood the film puts you in.
Mr. Depp is the highlight of the film. 2004 was a great year for him as he was red hot from the success of 2003's Pirates of the Carribean : The Curse of the Black Pearl and he had a part in three other films that year. His then recent career-defining portrayal of Jack Sparrow had not yet meant he would be typecasted in similar roles and as such, Secret Window might now appear like a breath of fresh air among Depp's recent filmography, proving he can play down-to-earth characters as well as crazies. Ironically, we discover by the end of the story that Mort Rainey is far from a sane guy, but Depp manages to make him appear real and we genuinely believe an individual like him could exist (unlike the pirate I mentioned earlier or Willy Wonka). His fall to insanity is not played for laughs or in an over-the-top manner as Depp gives us a nuanced and multidimensional performance that I like to consider among the very best of his long career. Mort is struggling to cope with his ex-wife's infidelity and Depp displays a wide range of emotions, successfully giving like to a complex and disturbed man. Also, the actor might not be the most physically imposing man around Hollywood, but the way he acts in the final moments of the film (when the Shooter persona takes over) is guaranteed to make your skin crawl, even with that ridiculous hat on his head. That's quite incredible, when we consider that before that, Depp made him a sympathetic guy to whom the audience could relate to (I sure did). Worth mentioning is his visual style ; has Johnny Depp ever looked cooler than here ? I don't think so. Sorry Capt. Jack.
The rest of the cast is also giving excellent performances. John Turturro plays John Shooter and makes him a totally hateful character ; I really wanted to hit the guy during the whole film. He is imposing and very menacing despite his disturbingly relaxed behaviour. The only complaint I could have is about his southern accent, which sounded ridiculously forced at times but maybe it was intended as Shooter only exists in Rainey's head... Otherwise, he played Shooter exactly the way I envisioned him when reading the short story, which is always a thrill for the viewer of the adaptation. Charles S. Dutton plays the friendly ally to great effect and is very likeable, just like in Alien 3 (1992), which is the only other film I recall seeing him in. Dutton has a strong screen presence and I would love to see him more often on the big screen ! Maria Bello is effective as Rainey's ex-wife but not much more as her character is pretty one-dimensional, which is the way it was written both by King and Koepp. Finally, like Turturro, Timothy Hutton's portrayal of Rainey's ex's new boyfriend is like I expected it to be, meaning he is a complete *******. The filmmakers clearly expected the audience to think that he was behind Shooter's actions but as I said before, I guessed the twist early. Still, Hutton's acting is perfect here and perhaps a few filmgoers really thought he was the antagonist.
David Koepp directed and wrote the film. As such, he did a marvelous job ; not only did he create a faithful adaptation of King's story, he even improved the ending. Koepp is perhaps better known as the writer behind mega hits such as Jurassic Park (1993), Mission : Impossible (1996), Panic Room (2002) and Spider-Man (2002) among others. His directing is flawless, the film flows beautifully and what could have been a pretty confusing story is told in a a way that is easy to understand. A true master at work. I especially like how he presented the crucial moment when Mort realizes he is John Shooter and that the latter takes over. The dream sequences are also quite effective and unsettling. The action might almost all be happening in one place (Mort's chalet), but Koepp managed to create a beautiful film, wisely choosing to shoot around gorgeous Quebec, Canada (Tashmore Lake does not actually exist) during the fall. As such, Secret Window is the perfect kind of film to watch during the season and especially around Halloween ; it never fails to put me in the right mood. Add to that a suspenseful and beautiful musical score by Philip Glass & Geoff Zanelli, which at times echoes the work of the great Bernard Herrmann (you can listen to the main theme in the video down here), and we've got a winner.
Main Tiltes Theme by Philip Glass & Geoff Zanelli
Watch it !
If you enjoyed the film, I would recommend watching The Number 23 (2007), starring Jim Carrey, which deals with similar themes and also features a surprising performance by its leading man. Ironically, Depp's character brags about how the way a story ends matters : "You know, the only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story, the ending. And this one... is very good. This one's perfect." While Secret Window's ending might seem predictable, Koepp managed to make a pretty entertaining little film around it, one that should not be missed, if only to witness Johnny Depp at the height of his career and in one of his last human roles.
Thank you for reading !
The official trailer
Timothy Lasiter from Liberty City on September 14, 2018:
You hit the nail on the head. This is one of my favorite movies by my favorite actors. Keep writing Writer!