The good and bad news of Secret Window is that Johnny Depp provides a rounded character that won't fit into the square peg of writer-director David Koepp's workmanlike adaptation of a gripping Stephen King novella (Secret Window, Secret Garden).
With a shadow in his eye, a quaver in his voice and odd mute poppings of his mouth, Depp evokes fuzzy layers of private emotion. He brings audiences close to him the way some leaders rally their troops -- with whispers instead of shouts. He has the gift that Marcello Mastroianni had of seeming to comment on a movie's narrative without stepping outside his role. Depp's quicksilver instincts for playing against expectation are what save this movie from intolerable cruelty and simplicity.
In Koepp's stark, overly efficient presentation, you soon see through the tricked-out story of a violent Mississippi would-be writer, John Shooter (John Turturro), who menaces successful novelist Mort Rainey (Depp) while he's living alone in a rural upstate New York cottage. (In King's book, of course, it's in Maine.) There's nothing to distract you from the mystery of why Shooter insists that Rainey plagiarized one of his short stories, and the movie has so many elements of earlier King novels and adaptations, like Misery and The Shining, that it gives you acute deja vu.
Rainey's flight from his wife, Amy (Maria Bello), after finding her in bed with another man (Timothy Hutton) is handled so abruptly that it registers as a convenient device to get Rainey isolated in the hinterlands until he finally agrees to sign divorce papers. It should have more resonance: This marital breakup is the root of Rainey's fragile psychological state, which leaves him vulnerable to Shooter.
Typically smart and wily performers Bello and Hutton can't gain any traction in the roles of the misunderstood spouse and the bumptious new man in her life. The atmosphere is ersatz, generated with cute touches like a local sheriff who does needlepoint (Len Cariou). And when Koepp goes for his big thrills, he lacks finesse or imagination; he deploys his camera and his mikes as brutally as his bad guy does a screwdriver, an ax and a shovel.
Yet even in these constricted circumstances, Depp makes the audience complicit in his character's view of the world -- and he does so without asking us to share that view. He plays the wronged husband's emotional suffering for sly bitterness, whether miming a pistol shot at the sympathetic cleaning woman who irritates him or having a silent conniption fit when his wife tells him, over the phone, that she's having one of her "visions." We're amused and also unsettled, because Depp suggests the real bile accumulating at the bottom of his grudge-holding, creative impotence and nocturnal stupors.
Wearing his wife's torn old bathrobe, Depp's Rainey resembles Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp in the brilliant Wonder Boys, but without the generosity. He can push buttons like an insult comic, especially when he tells the hulking hick Shooter that he's getting a divorce: "D-I-V-O-R-C-E -- Dee-vorce!" Depp never makes Mort too likable. He conjures the mental scrim that separates some writers from the world -- the constant labor of their observational and creative apparatus and their perpetual hum of anxiety over whether their work is worthy and original.
Depp and a few of his fellow players bring off some choice scenes. It's fun to watch Depp join forces with Charles S. Dutton as a high-powered New York private detective. As the two spar over how much of their talk is "on the clock," Depp's willowy strength and Dutton's robust power fuse a surprising and hilarious connection. A scene with an attractive insurance company officer (Gillian Ferrabee) who's quick to indicate that she's been divorced herself crackles with possibilities, as does a bit in a post office where a USPS gal (Elizabeth Marleau) casts a watchful eye on Mort, who deflects her attention reflexively. When she says he looks pale, he swiftly and softly says, "Thank you." Depp's collaboration with the daydreamy Marleau is so free, instinctive and funny it's a shame the tale leaves him and Bello little room to maneuver.
Koepp keeps the action moving inexorably and unsurprisingly to a climax more unforgiving than the novella's -- and an anticlimax of a finale. Secret Window leaves you unsatisfied and frustrated. Depp's performance both makes the film and undercuts it. He's a poet caught in a machine.
Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, and Charles S. Dutton
Directed by David Koepp
Released by Columbia Pictures
Time 97 minutes
Sun Score **1/2