By Elias Savada.
Rapace is out for blood here, but Chris Messina is mostly a nebbish this go-round.”
But the end of its tedious 97 minutes, I felt screwed while the cozy God Bless America town at the center of The Secrets We Keep celebrated July 4th, with one family sullenly unable to appreciate the holiday. I’m with you, guys, even if for different reasons. Maybe it was the too many cigarettes Noomi Rapace’s character was chain smoking throughout this not-quite-noirish melodrama. Or the neighbor played by Joel Kinnaman that does protest too much. Or the bespectacled Average Joe represented by a middling Chris Messina. The sum of the parts didn’t add up to much. Meh.
It’s 1960 or so in small town U.S.A., a blue collar place that’s home to the good doctor Lewis (Messina), his Romani wife Maja (Rapace), and their young son. As the film’s title suggests, she’s one of the several guardians of confidences, hers being that she hasn’t revealed to anyone the horrors inflicted on herself and her sister by the Nazis during WWII. The Romani genocide was part of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing and while their numbers killed pale in comparison to the 6 million Jews murdered, the carnage was just as inhumane. If not for a chance encounter, Maja probably would have been like many of the Jewish survivors who kept mum about the atrocities perpetrated on them – stories holed up inside them for generations. It’s how people tried to heal from the trauma of war.
And then, poof, The Secrets We Keep is a kidnap story. With dashes of bloodlust and unsettling, vengeance-imbued violence.
For Maja, her road to recollection begins with a man whistling. The memories of rape and murder rush over her. She believes the Devil has arrived in her small part of the world and his name Karl, although everyone else calls him Thomas (Kinnaman). This stranger in her midst – a doting father of two and husband to an appreciative wife (Amy Seimetz) – is he or isn’t he the German soldier responsible for nightmarish actions 15+ years earlier?
So, she feigns a car breakdown on a deserted stretch of road and takes a hammer to Thomas’s head. Convinced she has every right to take matters into her own small hands, she plop his large body in a car trunk and takes him prisoner in the family basement. One moment you think she’s right, the next that she’s batty. For the captive, maybe he’s trying to play the “all Europeans look alike” card, hoping to convince her she’s mistaken. As for poor Lewis, he gets to play referee, trying to join the winning team. Will he vote for Thomas, a Swiss national and a clerk in Zurich during the war, or Karl, the despicable demon?
Maja’s war weary story, of a life rebuilt in America, then torn apart again, was crafted by screenwriters Ryan Covington and Yuval Adler. It’s Covington’s first produced feature script and it feels uncertain in its footing. The whiplash effect that bandies makes this more a guessing game tale rather than a meditation on fractured memory. Adler, who also director, now has three features under his belt (little seen 2013’s Bethlehem and last year’s The Operative were his others). Some of his directorial flourishes push the film toward kidnap tale run awry while occasionally tossing in some film noir musical cues, courtesy of composer John Paesano (who also scored the unappealing Tesla). The pre-requisite color-drained flashbacks start small but increase in intensity and gore as the film tries to bring Maja story into focus.
Then the script tosses in the battles that flair between the husband and wife, their tensions rising with each little interrogation or evidence revelation. The family quicksand shape shifts with each passing moment.
The town’s movie marquee, in face, offers both North by Northwest and 4D Man. The former is a wink-wink nod to a tale of mistaken identity, while the latter, a small budget science fiction entry might be some cast or crew member’s favorite film. This double-bill actually did play at the Pixy in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the first week of January 1960.
The Swedish Rapace, still best known for playing Lisbeth Salander in 2009’s The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels, definitely is out for blood here, but my attention was drawn to her fellow countryman Kinnaman, an actor of immense range and energy, especially on television (The Killing, Altered Carbon, Hanna). Even while gagged and tied to a chair for most of this film, he focuses his acting talents through his facial expressions. Chris Messina, so effectively off-the-wall as a psychotic mob henchman in this year’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), is mostly a nebbish this go-round.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).