I would answer the question "What is the most underrated Stephen King movie?" with one of several titles, including Dolores Claiborne and Storm of the Century, depending on what sort of mood I was in that day. Today, I'm in a contemplative mood, and so the answer I would give would be Secret Window.
For whatever reason, this movie just doesn't get much love. IMDb's user ratings currently sit at 6.6/10; Rotten Tomatoes has it at a 46%, and Metacritic has it at an identical 46. All three may as well have assigned it a score of MEH.
What does this prove? It proves nothing, except maybe that my appreciation for the film is substantially outside the realm of conventional wisdom.
Which means, I suppose, that this post will consist of me swimming against the tide. Well, so be it. Strap on you floatation devices and follow me; the shore is in yonder direction, and we'd better get to movin' before that oil slick notices us.
The movie was adapted and directed by David Koepp, who has made several movies that are worth checking out. Most notable among them is Stir of Echoes, the Kevin Bacon ghost movie based on a Richard Matheson novel. That flick got totally overshadowed by the similarly-themed The Sixth Sense, which released the same year; but in the years since, it has built a sturdy reputation for itself.
As a screenwriter, Koepp's name is attached to huge hits like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, and Spider-Man. He also wrote Carlito's Way (my favorite Brian DePalma movie), Panic Room, and Death Becomes Her, to name just a few. He is, without doubt, a notable screenwriter.
His work on Secret Window reveals a writer/director who is thoughtful, focused, and deliberate in something akin to the way Alfred Hitchcock also represented those qualities. Or, if you prefer, Brian DePalma. On his entertaining commentary track for the film (which can be found on the DVD and Blu-ray editions alike), Koepp makes it clear that he was and is a fan of King's writing, and that he enjoyed "Secret Window, Secret Garden." In tackling the adaptation, he has done what so many adapters of King's work fail to do: he has made allowances for the differences between prose and cinema.
Odds are good that this is a subject you have heard me discuss before. And if you keep reading my blog -- please do! -- you will almost certainly hear it again in the future. We'll all have jetpacks and our television screens will be implants that beam the signals directly into our brains; because, you know, the future . . . but some things won't change at all, and on that list of set-in-stone verities will be the idea that what works in a book may not work in a movie.
The writer and/or director who fails to take that into consideration -- or who fails to actually implement solutions based on the idea -- is almost certain to make a poor adaptation. I'm not going to name any names here; suffice it to say that it is a problem which has plagued a great many adaptations of King's work.
My stance tends to be this: I just want to see a good movie. I don't need it to be a word-for-word recreation of the story or novel. In some cases, that would be nice; but I don't need it. What I need is a movie that makes sense, is true to itself, and engages me emotionally. Secret Window does all of those things. In getting to that point, it deviates somewhat from the novella King wrote, but that's okay by me, because the changes make sense.
A few years ago, I wrote a review -- in the form of a self-interview -- of the television adaptation of Bag of Bones. In it, I complained quite a lot about certain changes that the screenwriter made to King's story. In that case, however, many of the changes were poorly-thought-out and ineffective. I made a comparison that struck me then (and still strikes me now) as being rather apt: altering a novel for the screen is like operating on cancer, in that if you don't get it all, it's ultimately rather pointless and is likely to lead nowhere good for the patient.
David Koepp would probably agree with me in that regard. He has made numerous changes to King's story, but in each case, he has carefully considered the impact the change would have on the rest of the story, and has, in essence, made sure to remove all of the cancerous tissue. Here is one example: in the novella, Mort chooses not to involve the police or any other type of authorities. His reasons for this make sense (especially once you realize that he and Shooter and one and the same), and King -- who writes the vast majority of the story from Mort's perspective -- gives us enough information that we do not stop to question whether we think Mort is making a good decision or not. In his commentary track, Koepp mentions this and says that while it works extremely well in the novella, it would not work in the movie because it would be too clunky to try and impart all of the same justifications to the audience. Cinema is a medium of movement; explaining things is the bane of movement, and so whenever possible, the filmmaker is well-served to structure things so that they simply make immediate sense, without the need to explain everything. And so it is that in the movie version, Mort goes to the local sheriff, and also to a private investigator.
Koepp has made another, much more significant, change: he has allowed Mort/Shooter to get away with it. He does not specifically address this change in the commentary, not in terms of its intent; but my guess is that he found the novella's ending -- in which Mort is shot and killed by a detective while trying to murder Amy, and, further, is shown to have been the victim of some manner of genuine haunting/possession (either by the specter of John Kintner or by the "real" Shooter, who became actualized in some way through Mort's willpower) -- to have been overly complicated, too vague, and insufficiently cinematic. Works -- more or less -- on the page; would fall flat as hell on a sixty-foot screen.
So, what to do? The obvious answer: add some punch, dial up the impact. The solution: alter the very motivation for Shooter's existence. If in the novella, he is a creation of Mort's guilty subconscious -- or, alternatively, a phantom preying on Mort's guilty subconscious -- and if that is rewritten, then what are Shooter's goals?
You could, theoretically, answer that question any number of ways. What is important is that once you have answered it, you make sure the rest of the story reflects that answer. Koepp's answer was to say that Mort creates John Shooter to provide himself an impetus toward action. Mort has broken into the motel room to confront his adulterous wife and her lover; he has carried a gun with him, apparently intent on killing the both of them. He fails to carry through on the threat, and his inaction in that moment is a seed of psychosis that grows into a full-fledged tree of madness: haunted by his failure to kill these two people, his subconscious invents a more powerful and decisive personality who will do the job.
From there, Koepp makes another wise decision: he permits Mort/Shooter to not only follow through on the murders, but to get away with them. The intent of his movie is not to offer up a villain whom we wish to see caught and punished; it is to put us inside the mind of a madman, and show us what it might be like to walk around in those shoes for a while. We don't want Mort to get caught any more than we would want ourselves to get caught; that we should want such things is irrelevant, because when and if we ever reach that stage in our lives, concepts like "should" become pointless. It is a disturbing and haunting ending, and that is entirely appropriate; such idea should disturb and haunt us.
Nevertheless, it IS a major difference from the novella, and I suppose that some people must be bothered by that. Not this blogger, though; I think Koepp's changes were almost entirely beneficial, and I'd love to see him adapt something else by King at some point. I offer "1922" as a potential Koepp/King vehicle.
I've got plenty more to say about Koepp, but before we do that segment of tonight's program, let's talk about Johnny Depp.
In recent years, Depp has become a somewhat divisive figure among moviegoers. In truth, he's always been that way; it's just that for a couple of years there, everyone fell in love with the guy, and then XX% of people fell out of love with him again, and now XX% of that XX% want to sell the notion that he has somehow lost his way as an actor. This is rubbish. Depp has, practically since the dawn of his career, been an oddball of a performer, both in terms of the performances themselves and in terms of the projects he chooses to associate himself with. You're either onboard with that or you aren't, and if you're spending time talking about how he has "lost his way," then you weren't paying much attention to begin with, or, worse, you are a dilettante.
That said, I kind of do feel as if Depp has lost his way a bit recently. That whole thing with The Lone Ranger was just a bad idea, and so was Alice in Wonderland, no matter HOW much money it made worldwide. And it made a billion dollars worldwide, y'all; a billion.
But otherwise, I've continued to enjoy what he's doing. I thought The Rum Diary was quite good; I loved his work in Dark Shadows (even if the movie itself did fall utterly apart in the third act); he was flat-out awesome in Sweeny Todd; Rango was terrific. Neither The Tourist nor Public Enemies worked particularly well, but it wasn't because Depp wasn't giving those movies his all.
In short, I'm a fan. Looking over his filmography, I count a minimum of twenty movies that I've enjoyed. That's a significant number for any actor, and it means that when Depp shows up in a movie, I pay attention. Of those twenty-ish movies, I's have to say that my favorite Depp performance is probably still Edward Scissorhands, or perhaps Ed Wood. Donnie Brasco is a dark-horse contender, though, and Secret Window is right behind it.
Depp's work in Secret Window is both subtle and showy; he's making big choices here, but some of them may not seem like big choices initially. For example, his tendency to have a serious case of nap-head and to look like a slovenly mess. We all know that Depp prefers to look like a weirdo in his movie: from the leather-clad albinism of Edward Scissorhands to the glam-rock pirate of Jack Sparrow to the less-definable weirdnesses of Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter, Depp has chosen a lot of very strange visual looks. On the face of things, his Dorito-chompin', soda-swillin', bathrobe-clad More Rainey might appear to simply be another character look in the vein of those others.
And it is that. But it's also more than that: it's a reflection of who Mort is at that point in his life. Mort has succumbed to sloth and laziness and inaction: he naps constantly; he writes so infrequently that we only see him do it once in the whole movie; he is prone to walk around with his hair unbrushed; he wears a bathrobe that is so tattered one of the arms is on the verge of falling off; his diet is, obviously, abysmal. Perhaps more significantly, he has been putting off signing his divorce papers for months; sleeping all day is one form of lethargy, but keeping your spouse from moving on with her life is another altogether. But all are one at the bottom of things, and all of this speaks to Mort's psychotic need to create a John Shooter, who will show up and -- through unusual means, granted -- help him get his life back in order. (As indeed he does; at the end of the movie, we see that Mort has cleaned himself up considerably.)
All of Depp's choices reflect these ideas. He also carries on a running theme of communicating with himself at the expense of communicating with others: he has numerous nonverbal gestures, such as miming firing a gun at his housekeeper or strangling the phone when he is ostensibly talking to Amy. He talks to his dog pretty frequently, and that, too, reflects the movie's central concerns. Who doesn't talk to their dog? I hold entire conversations with my cats, and I have to say, they typically seem a bit unconvinced. Does this make me crazy? Well, I don't think so . . . but even if it did, how would I know? Which is one of the points the movie is making, of course.
It is a great performance from Depp. He is thoroughly sympathetic, but weird enough that once the big reveal has taken place, it makes complete sense. He peppers in plenty of business like the clenching and unclenching of his jaw, and the wack-a-doodle moment in which he is talking to himself and starts shouting "Ra! Ra! Ra!" (which, according to Koepp, is an imitation of something Depp's pre-verbal child was doing a lot at the time of filming, and which therefore represents Mort on the verge of regressing almost to the point of ceasing to exist in some essential way).
If you hate Depp, I suppose you might hate what he's doing in this movie. That, I think, would be a shame.
As threatened, let us now return to the subject of David Koepp, and talk about some of the technical aspects of this film.
Some of the technical aspects of Secret Window are impressive and cool. However, I have to admit that both in the commentary track and on the hour-long making-of documentary which can be found on the DVD/Blu-ray, Koepp is a bit too quick to point out his tricks, and to spell out what they represent within the story. He doesn't come off like he's full of himself, exactly; and in any case, I think he's right to be proud of his work. He's also self-effacing when it comes to pointing out mistakes, and places where he could have done something more effectively. It's just that I kind of get a little leery of directors when they sound like they are tooting their own horn.
Ah, but Hitchcock was also prone to do such things, and it certainly doesn't keep me from loving his work. Koepp, in fact, has a bit of Hitchcock in his style, insomuch as he uses his camera and its movements to further the story and characters from a psychological point of view.
The movie opens with this shot:
The camera is locked down onto the hood of the car Mort is driving. We don't know where he is or what he's doing; we only know that he's obviously trying to make up his mind about something; he is heard via voiceover telling himself to turn around and get the hell out of there. So he puts his glasses on and begins to drive angrily away. But he soon comes to a screeching halt, having decided to ignore his voiceover's recommendation; "Don't go back," that other-Mort says; "do not go back there." But he does; he puts the car in reverse, looks over his shoulder, and begins backing up. As he does, the camera stays in place, and we see that he is outside a motel.
This is a terrific shot, and if not for Koepp's commentary I would have no clue how it had been achieved; I had visions of some dude creeping up on the car and unlocking the camera, then holding it in place while the car backed up. It isn't that. Instead, it is two different shots put together; one shot by a camera locked down onto the car, the other shot by a camera that was free of the car but positioned in almost exactly the same place. The two shots were then joined on one of the wipes created by the windshield wiper-blades.
Ah, but technical proficiency is one thing, and that thing is only interesting if it somehow reflects the story. Here, it does. The camera staying in place corresponds to the revelation of the setting, and that revelation -- combined with Mort's obvious anger -- gives us a pretty good idea of what is going on in that motel. But it gets even better: the camera can be seen as representing that inner voice of Mort's, the one cautioning him not to do what he is about to do . . .and that voice can be seen further as a representation of his sanity. That camera staying in place, then, represents the moment in which Mort loses his sanity; we actually see it happen, and see Mort pulling away from it (and us). So not only is it a terrific piece of technical filmmaking, it is also accomplishing multiple things for the movie's psychology, all at once.
We get a simlarly-revelatory shot in the next sequence, beginning in the opening credits and lasting for about two minutes. It is a crane shot outside the house at Tashmore Lake; the shot circles around the side of Mort's house, swooping up to reveal the titular window; it goes through the window and into the house, passing Mort's open laptop, which has the poor beginnings of a story that is obviously not going too well; then hops over the railing and goes from the second story down to the first, right up to a mirror that shows Mort napping on the couch . . . and then goes though that mirror, right up to Mort's sleeping back. Just in time for him to be awakened by a knock at the door...
According to Koepp, this is about five different shots put together, but that fact doesn't make the final product less impressive, and there is one simple reason for that: it is, again, all about story and psychology. Anybody could design a shot that swoops around and shows you a much of things. However, doing so in a way that advances the movie's story and themes is another matter altogether. Here, what makes all the difference is that move the camera takes through the mirror. According to Koepp, this represents the act of the movie entering Mort's point-of-view; from here on out, we will see things as Mort sees them. We will only know what he knows; or, rather, what he consciously knows. Later, during the scene in which Shooter tells Mort the truth about himself, the camera goes back into the mirror again, and when it emerges on the other side, we are once again in an objective reality; we are seeing things not from Mort's point of view, but from the "real" point of view. Hence, we can see Johnny Depp playing Shooter.
That Koepp put that much thought into expressing the ideas inherent in King's story is impressive; that he actually pulled it off is even more impressive.
Another, simpler moment comes when Mort meets Shooter for the second time. He is outside, walking along a nearby path; the camera is behind him, following, and he stops suddenly, looking up a small hill. We do not immediately see what he is looking at, but after a moment, the camera moves to the left and reveals John Shooter standing there, waiting for Mort.
The positioning and movement of the camera creates the effect of Shooter appearing (figuratively) out of Mort's head. Nice!
I'd like to think that is the sort of thing I would notice, but I can't swear to it. In any case, I cannot take credit for noticing it, because Koepp pointed it out in the commentary. Same goes for the big two-minute crane shot that takes us into Mort's point of view. Would I have picked up on those ideas with Koepp spelling them out? Maybe. I myself came up with the theory about the camera's fixedness representing Mort's break fro sanity in the opening scene; Koepp spilled the beans about how the shot was accomplished, but said nothing about what the camera staying in place means to the story, so clearly I can come up with some ideas without being prompted.
Still . . . I wonder if I would have correctly interpreted these other two moments. In any case, it is now irrelevant. Doubly so, because regardless of where the knowledge came from -- my own brain or someone else's prodding -- I have it now, and it enhances my enjoyment of the movie considerably no matter its provenance.
So, for me, what we have in Secret Window is a well-written, well-acted, technically proficient piece of cinema. I find very little to dislike. So how come so few people seem to be with me on this one? Perhaps there is some serious problem with the film that I've overlooked?
If so, let me know about it. That's what comments sections are for.
Ah, but we're not done yet! I've got a few leftover observations to toss out, so here they come:
I've said nary a word about John Turturro thus far, but clearly, his performance is vitally important to the film. And if I'm being honest with myself, I guess I have to admit that he isn't quite up to Depp's level. This is not to say that he's bad; he isn't even close to bad. He's quite good, in fact. But he is maybe a touch on the campy side, what with his bad Southern accent and his hick wardrobe.
There's an argument that goes like this: those things work for the movie, rather than against it. The accent is a little weak? Makes sense; Shooter is a creation of Mort's psyche, and Mort himself -- like so many non-Southerners -- has only a cartoonish notion of what a Southerner sounds like. I can't be sure that is the intent of the film, but when considered in a certain way, it is the impact of the movie regardless of intent. Considered in another way, it is an actor doing an iffy job with an accent that is very different to his own.
I'd also add that Turturro is not particularly threatening as Shooter, who ostensibly should be a figure that frightens us and causes us to dread his reappearance. But, again, does this work against the movie? Arguably, yes; but just as arguably, no. Shooter presents himself as an antagonist for Mort, but in reality he IS Mort, and he is doing Mort's bidding. Therefore, does the fact that he isn't really all that intimidating or scary reveal something about the character(s)? I'd say that it does.
But it's just as possible that that is the sound of me rationalizing something to try and smooth over one of the movie's bumpy patches. Every viewer will make up his or her own mind on that subject.
Two of the movie's other key roles -- Amy and Ted -- are filled in by Maria Bello and Timothy Hutton. Both are very good, and both have more difficult roles to play than you might suspect. Bello as Amy is required to be both sympathetic AND unlikeable; Koepp needs her to be someone we like, so that we understand why losing her has had such an adverse impact on Mort, but he also needs her to have enough of an edge of iciness that when the worm turns and Mort/Shooter begins trying to kill her, we retain at least a little sympathy with him.
As for Ted, Koepp has taken an element of the novella -- the red herring of Ted being from "Shooter's Bay" (Shooter's Knob, originally) serving as a clue that Ted might somehow be pulling Shooter's strings -- and expanded upon it. In the case of Ted, we have to hate him immediately on his appearance; we have to then retain that hate throughout the movie, all the way to his bitter end. When that shovel smacks him in the face, we are supposed to inwardly -- or outwardly, perhaps -- cheer a bit. We're not supposed to feel good about doing it; but we are supposed to do it nevertheless. And yet, Ted also needs to be likeable and charming enough that you can just barely see why Amy might have gone over to him. Timothy Hutton walks that line admirably, and I would argue that if his role hadn't worked, the movie itself might not have worked.
I neglected to get a decent screencap of Charles S. Dutton, who plays private investigator Ken Karsch; I thought I had, but I see now that I was mistaken, and frankly, I'm too lazy to go back and get one. So the following will have to do:
This character is not in the novella; he fits in pretty well, though.
And now, we turn to Chico the dog. In the novella, Mort had a pet cat instead; Bump, by name. That name cracks me up, for some reason. Having a dog named Chico is also pretty funny, but I'll be damned if I could tell you why. In any case, this is a change that was probably as much about logistics as anything (it's apparently MUCH easier to get a dog to do something specific on camera than it is to accomplish same with a cat), but I think it works okay from a story standpoint as well. The idea seems to be that Chico is Amy's dog, who has somehow ended up with Mort; this makes Chico's later murder a bit more plausible.
The actor dog (real name: Chico) was apparently blind as a bat, and prone to run into furniture while on-set. Which is sad, but also kind of funny. Ole Chico was a cute doggie, though, and we celebrate his existence via these screencaps:
For the remainder of my leftover observations, we resort to bulletpoints:
- Another of my favorite pieces of Johnny Depp business in the film: after picking up Shooter's manuscript, Mort washes his hands in the kitchen. As he walks back to the couch to resume his nap, he "dires" his hands by flapping them about in the air and simply flinging all the water away. Again, on the face of things this might seem to be merely a piece of weirdness from Depp, but it actually deepens Mort's laziness -- and his madness -- ever so slightly. Plus, it makes me laugh. A great deal of Depp/Mort's eccentricity in the film is designed to make viewers laugh, and that is a quick, effective way to keeping us on his side; we sympathize with him, because really, who among us hasn't dried his hands by the flinging method at some point? It works because we recognize ourselves in it.
- In the movie, Mort tells Amy about Shooter's accusation, and Amy says something to the effect of Mort having sworn to her that it had only happened the one time. Later, Mort refers to this incident being known only by the two of them and by the lawyers. So clearly, this is a big change from the novella. Its impact, I suppose, is to make Shooter's claims seem more plausible, and that has the effect of making Shooter himself seem more plausible. Does it work? Yeah, I think so. It also makes Mort seems less trustworthy, which in retrospect is a good thing.
- Koepp talks at length on the commentary about the scene in which Mort thinks he sees Shooter in his bathroom and attacks with a poker. Koepp says he was very concerned about the sequence not "cheating" the audience here. That is, he didn't want to show anything that was false, even though he could reasonably have done so by virtue of being inside Mort's point of view at the time. But Koepp felt that tricking the audience by doing something like showing a hint of Shooter's hat would be playing false with the audience, and he wanted to not go down that road. I suspect that a lot of less-talented directors would have made exactly the opposite choice; they would have cheated up a storm in this sequence and, probably, others. Koepp is to be commended for making this decision as he did.
- When Mort drives to the house he and Amy used to share, and sits outside watching Amy and Ted, we hear him think via voiceover, "This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." These are lines from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime," which remains one of my all-time favorites. And while the movie itself does nothing to suggest this next thing, I can't help but mention that the mere connection with Talking Heads brings up two additional songs in my mind. Those, of course, are "Burning Down the House" and "Psycho Killer." Fa-fa-fa-fa, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa....
And with that, the review has come to a close. I've got some leftover screencaps, though, so I'll sling 'em atcha . . . NOW!
|Does that author photo look at all like Johnny Depp? Not to me. Looks a bit like Henry Thomas.|
|Koepp mentions being amused by some of the fake story titles in Mort's collection. His favorite is the same as mine: "You Gonna Eat That?" Which is indeed a fine title for a fake story.|
|Even if he's not real, doesn't Shooter seem like too fussy a writer to put an uncapitalized personal pronoun on a note such as this one? I think so.|
|This shot suggests that Mort might have reached the point of having to make some sort of decision.|
|Creepy shot. It reminds me of a similar shot of 2013's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. That scene gets a big chuckle out of the way Martin Freeman plays the moment; here, though, it is purely creepy.|
Boy oh boy, y'all; I've got the blogger equivalent of constipation right now. I'm weeks behind in my blogging schedule; the holidays were madness at work, schedule-wise, and it has had a massive impact on my leisure time. Hopefully, that will be clearing up son, though, and I can work my way through some of these backed-up posts. Which include the following: an incredibly long-overdue Bryant Has Issues (which will, among other things, tackle the final issue of Joe Hill's Locke & Key); a review of the anthology Turn Down the Lights, or, at the very least, a review of King's short story "Summer Thunder" from said anthology; reviews of the final three episodes of Haven's fourth season; a review of Joe Hill's novella "Wraith" (which appeared in the limited edition of NOS4A2), plus his short story "Wolverton Station," PLUS the Owen King/Kelly Braffet short story "The Status of Myth" (if not the entire anthology in which it appeared); and a review of the season one Blu-rays of Under the Dome. I might also write a review of the soundtrack CD for Room 237, plus I've got a post I want to do about a mess of old issues of Cinefantastique I recently obtained (almost all of which have great King or King-related content).
Meanwhile, I'm also due for another of my vintage-King-short-story pieces, this time on "Night Surf."
So pass me the blogger equivalent of Ex-Lax, somebody; I've got to get this shit out of my system!