Campy Killer 

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Novelist Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp, left) is menaced by hick John Shooter (John Turturro) in Secret Window (courtesy photo)
The only thing that matters is the ending

"The only thing that matters is the ending."

That isn't true, of course, but even a lie can sometimes be good advice. Writer/director David Koepp, who gives this line to novelist Mort Rainey (Depp), might have applied it to his own movie: If you give the crowd a penny-ante psycho slaying for a finale, the viewer will walk out thinking he has seen a penny-ante psycho slasher movie.

Even if he kind of enjoyed much of the rest of it. Secret Window (based on a Stephen King story) isn't a good movie, but it is the kind of likeably ridiculous thriller - campy whether it wants to be or not - that won't kill you if you get stuck with it on cable.

It's campy, for instance, in the way that John Turturro channels the hick menace of Robert De Niro's Max Cady from Cape Fear. Turturro may speak with a deliberate drawl, but he evidently moves like lightning, sneaking around and wreaking havoc on poor Mort. He sneaks into Mort's house at will, not to harm but to scare him, and reminds his prey that he's the one in charge.

Turturro's John Shooter, you see, is convinced that Mort somehow sneaked from his New York home down to "Mizzizzippi" and stole a short story Shooter wrote. Mort published it under his own name but got the ending all wrong, and Shooter wants him to re-publish the corrected story under the appropriate name. Mort insists he did no such thing, but secretly he wonders; he was, after all, a drunk in those days, and he did once plagiarize someone else.

Early on, Koepp sets the scene with a clever shot full of hidden foreshadowing: His camera glides in through an upper window in Mort's cabin, slides downstairs, and approaches an old mirror where we see the novelist napping. Rather than turn to frame its subject, the camera pushes into the reflection, and proceeds from the wrong side of the looking-glass. A René Magritte moment involving this mirror later on will remind us that the director warned us in advance what kind of film he had in store.

Koepp, who has had more success as a writer than as a director, has his thriller moves down cold. He knows how to warn you of impending danger, and when those warnings should lead to comic relief. But he is less equipped to handle the helter-skelter stuff he has planned for the film's final act, and in these moments, one longs for Brian De Palma, who directed three of Koepp's better films; in Snake Eyes, for instance, the director's giddy paranoia had just the right "we're only messing with you, folks" tone to match Koepp's kooky inventions.

Secret Window

Dir. David Koepp; writ. Stephen King (novel), Koepp; feat. Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles Dutton (PG-13)
One film artist you would never think to match with Koepp is composer Philip Glass, whose name is featured prominently in the opening credits. At least a half-dozen times in the film, when we're hearing the predictable swelling chords and shrieking strings of hack thrillers, viewers familiar with Glass' classy austerity will think "no way he wrote that." A look at the Internet Movie Database offers an additional composer, Geoff Zanelli, whose filmography consists almost exclusively of parenthetical "additional music" credits. One suspects Glass would happily surrender the glory on this effort, but maybe the producers wouldn't pay him in full unless they could use his name.

Depp does what he can here, but he has no Captain Jack Sparrow to entertain him. He plays the heartbroken Mort (whose wife left him for another man six months ago) as an agreeable slob who talks to his dog and spends most of his time napping in a robe so long-gone it might have prompted the divorce. Charting the trajectory of Mort's bed head is one of Secret Window's small pleasures, but this minor goofiness hardly fits the The Shining moments to come.

In the end, "the only thing that matters is the ending." Or something like that. Saying who does what to whom in the closing minutes of Secret Window would violate the reader's trust, but suffice to say it could have been done better. Maybe John Turturro could have helped. •


More by John DeFore

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