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SECRET WINDOW(director/writer: David Koepp; screenwriter: based on the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden” by Stephen King; cinematographer: Fred Murphy; editor: Jill Savitt; music: Philip Glass; cast: Johnny Depp (Mort Rainey), John Turturro (John Shooter), Maria Bello (Amy Rainey), Timothy Hutton (Ted Milner), Charles S. Dutton (Ken Karsch), Len Cariou (Sheriff Dave Newsome), Joan Heney (Mrs. Garvey); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Gavin Polone; Columbia Pictures; 2004)
“An unsatisfying finale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer/director David Koepp (“Stir of Echoes”) adapts Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden, one of four stories in the collection Four Past Midnight, for this creepy psychological thriller. In 1995 The Langoliers, a made-for-television film, was the first one of those stories to be adapted to film.

Johnny Depp plays a successful pulp mystery writer named Mort Rainey. In the opening scene he catches his pretty wife Amy (Maria Bello) in bed with boyfriend Ted Milner (Timothy Hutton) in an upstate New York motel. Mort’s holed up alone with his dog Chico in his rustic lakeside cabin trying to write his next novel. Mort is disheveled, he drinks and sleeps too much, can’t quit smoking, suffers from writer’s block, talks to himself and his head is exploding with bad thoughts and memories. He has been separated from his wife for the last six months, as she’s living in their downstate Riverdale home and waiting for him to sign the divorce papers to make it official and take over that property as agreed upon in the settlement.

Things take an ominous turn when a menacing deranged Mississippi hick and aspiring writer, dressed in an Amish-like big-brimmed black hat, John Shooter (John Turturro), shows up at Mort’s cabin and accuses him of plagiarizing his unpublished manuscript for the novel Secret Window and threatens him with body harm unless “right gets put right.” The short story in question is about a man who schemes to kill his unfaithful wife. After much bargaining, the psychopath is willing to settle things by adding a new ending as written in the manuscript he leaves with the writer or have the author prove to him in the next three days the story ran in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine before he wrote the manuscript. When the arthritic elderly local sheriff (Cariou) proves to be of no help, Mort returns to the city to hire a private detective (Dutton) to keep an eye on him–someone he used before when accused of being a plagiarist.

The film is all setup and filled with the usual scary home alone atmosphere Gothic horror shots, as it does good when it depicts the isolated cabin in Tashmore Lakes and the vulnerability of the struggling writer who is dressed in a raggedy bathrobe and is seen at his computer frustratingly deleting an opening paragraph for his new work by telling himself that is bad writing. When the story kicks in somewhere at the midpoint and Mort’s behavior becomes increasingly more strange it thereby moves awkwardly to a crucial denouement, as it soon cranks up the action in a bloody manner leading to an unsatisfying finale.

King has used writers and their creative problems as protagonists before in stories of his also adapted to film, such as The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), and The Dark Half (1993). It might be that the prolific author is repeating himself because he is running out of supernatural stories to tell and is himself experiencing some form of writer’s block. As the thriller part of this film was banal and flimsy in nature and couldn’t sustain the suspense, while the part of a writer emotionally breaking down had some legs if it weren’t trapped in such a superficial plotline. Koepp is better known for his writing credits which include Panic Room and Spider-Man than his directing abilities, which lack subtlety and a sure-handed way to tell a story.

Philip Glass composes his forgettable brand of New Age music to the mix. While Depp, as King’s alter ego, gives his role some kookiness and unpredictability, but his amusingly manic acting skills are not enough to overcome how forced the film felt and how it lost focus of any logic by confusing the bad blood split-up story with the writer’s block one. The ending itself which was supposed to clear everything up seemed not to matter by the time it rolled around. By the time of the payoff, I was too distracted by its overall slapdash pulpish tone and its failure to allow me a reason to care for Depp or any of the other characters.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”