Friday, March 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Depp's charisma makes 'Secret Window' worth a look

Seattle Times movie critic

Without Johnny Depp, "Secret Window" would be a stale stew indeed.

Based on a Stephen King novella, it explores themes previously cooked in other King screen adaptations like "Misery" and "The Shining" — the isolated writer, the scary reader, the paranoia that slowly sets in. Depp is Mort Rainey, an author smarting from the breakup of his marriage, holing up in his rustic lake cabin, wrapping himself in a tattered striped bathrobe and a cocoon of self-pity. Then one day, there's a knock on the door.

"You stole my story," says a strange man in a black hat (John Turturro), manuscript in hand. And it all goes downhill from there.

But with Depp — well, the man who single-handedly turned "Pirates of the Caribbean" into a joyride has plenty of resources up his sleeve, and he turns "Secret Window" into a pleasantly show-offy showcase for his own charisma. Depp's one of the few actors you can see playing on screen; he's got a knack for making a line seem spontaneous, as if he's making a last-minute substitution for a much duller expected line.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Secret Window," with Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou. Written and directed by David Koepp, based on the novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden" by Stephen King. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, sexual content and language. Several theaters.

In one scene, Mort — who's been trying to give up smoking during all this drama — frantically rummages in a desk drawer for cigarettes, jumpy and defeated. "I don't care," he tells himself. "I'm just going to totally smoke." There's a vaguely teenagy, desperate rhythm to the line that makes it both funny and believable; this guy's out there on the edge, and knows it.

Director David Koepp, who made the scary little ghost story "Stir of Echoes" a few years back (though he's better known as a writer of blockbusters, including "Spider-Man" and "Jurassic Park"), has trouble finding the right tone here — is he making a horror movie, or a black comedy with a few scares tossed in? "Secret Window" is a little of both, and the two genres step on each other's toes, uneasily waltzing.

Turturro, employing a flat Southern accent similar to the one he used in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," never seems especially threatening. And the movie's full of odd little touches — like a sheriff (Len Cariou) who does needlepoint and an insurance investigator grieving her own marriage — that seem artificial, introduced for random atmosphere rather than adding anything to the story.

The character of Mort's soon-to-be-ex-wife Amy (Maria Bello) is especially problematic; you never quite know where she's coming from, and you sense Koepp doesn't much care.

"Secret Window" is one of those movies that's pretty easy to pick apart once you've seen it, and it's ultimately not as smart as its snappy first half hour leads you to hope.

The last 20 minutes, in particular, really fall apart; despite the presence of a "redrum" moment reminiscent of "The Shining," you leave with a shrug rather than a shiver.

But up to the end, the movie has a crisp, brisk style to it, and it's a pleasure to watch Depp, with his seared-out blondish hair (Mort has highlights he clearly got tired of maintaining) and amused eyes, finding this character. Mort speaks in a slightly strangled voice, like somebody who's playing at being debonair but knows he can't quite pull it off. Running his hands through his hair and clicking his jaw, Depp is almost over-the-top, but deliciously so.

"I don't respond well to intimidation," he says at one point, breathily. "It makes me feel icky."

No other actor working today would deliver the line quite the way he does; Depp understands the pleasure of the unexpected. It's popcorn, but sometimes popcorn hits the spot.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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