Divorce and the solitary life spell disaster for author Mort Rainey in “Secret Window”, which is based on Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden. Rainey (Johnny Depp) is a successful New York mystery writer who has been living like a recluse at his lakeside cabin upstate since he caught his wife cheating on him six months before. He spends most of his time sleeping on the couch, struggling with a severe case of writer’s block and asking for approval from his timid-looking dog Chico.
One day, a stranger by the name of John Shooter (John Turturro) shows up on his doorstep with these puzzling words: “You stole my story”. The man leaves Mort with a manuscript, much against the latter’s will, of a short story which he claims Mort took credit for. Shooter, who has come all the way from Mississippi yet looks vaguely Amish, is a tall, slender figure with something eerie about him.
Mort is at first annoyed rather than worried about this, convinced that he’s dealing with a nutcase reader. He contends he wrote the story, and had it published in a magazine, before Shooter wrote his. Doubt invades his mind, though, when comparisons reveal striking similarities between the two tales. As Shooter resorts to increasingly evil tactics in demanding a new story, Mort tries to get him off his back by saying he’ll come up with the magazine to settle the escalating dispute once and for all.
The relationship between the writer, the reader and fiction itself is something King explored before in Misery and The Dark Half. The novella on which this film is based is an involving 150-page read that told us more about Mort Rainey’s past and his difficult relationship with estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) and new man in her life Ted (Tim Hutton), while also putting a little more emphasis on the small-town dynamics of which King is a master observer.
For better or for worse, “Secret Window” is no doubt a Johnny Depp showcase. When the action around him is relentless, in stories which leave room or even call for them like “Sleepy Hollow” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Depp’s mannerisms add a nice touch. Here, his quirks only feel, and look, weird. The final 20 minutes are nonetheless quite effective in creating a palpable sense of dread. Helped by a semi-claustrophobic setting in the form of the Tashmore Lake cabin, which sends a faint echo of the Overlook Hotel, and a dark score by Philip Glass, director David Koepp (“Stir of Echoes”, the screenplay for “Panic Room”) has put together a very good terror film.
Bello (“Payback”, “Coyote Ugly”, “The Cooler”) is very convincing as Amy and Turturro is excellent as Shooter, playing him halfway between an insidious harbinger of doom and a “Deliverance”-style country weirdo. Taken on its own, the film is a fine psychological thriller although those who read the short story might appreciate it more, coming in with more information about the main character. We should mention the film is helped tremendously by its ending. It is gripping not so much in its nature, which is predictable, but in its combination of acting, visual effects and music that fits the material extremely well.
Review by J-F Tremblay