Secret Window

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“Write what you know” has always been a major piece of advice when it comes to would-be authors and it’s obviously one that’s of prime importance to unstoppable tale-weaver Stephen King. If you needed any proof of this, the fact that a sizable quantity of his main characters are authors of varying success (or at the very least, passionate English teachers) should tell you everything you need to know – in fact, I’d wager there’s not a popular author alive, still writing today that’s obsessed as much with the craft of committing stories to paper (or memory stick) as good old Steve.
This brings us to Secret Window, a 2004 adaptation of his novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, that popped up in the anthology book, Four Past Midnight and sees the King of Maine tackle some suspiciously familiar material and sees Johnny Depp voraciously attack a role with numerous weird acting tics that doesn’t necessitate him dressing as a pirate or wearing a colourful top hat.

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Mort Rainey is a writer of mystery fiction currently in the grip of writers block after his marriage spectacularly collapsed 6 months earlier and after retreating to his cabin to unsuccessfully jot down and then delete ungripping sentences, his increasingly disheveled appearance would suggest he could find a lucrative side hustle playing Kurt Cobain in his final days for a celebrity lookalike agency. While his wife, Amy, badgers him to sign the legal papers and finally draw a line under the dedicated corpse of their marriage, Mort one day gets a visit from a fellow writer from Mississippi named John Shooter – but this is no friendly social visit. You see, behind his drawling accent and his distinctive, almost Amish style dress, Shooter has some serious accusations of plagiarism to make and claims that a story he wrote a few years prior is virtually the same as one penned by Mort with the only real difference being wildly different endings.
Despite the fact that Mort secretly has been guilty of copy and pasting another’s work in the past, he maintains his innocence, but the unsettling demeanor of his accuser starts to get decidedly more threatening.
After his dog is murdered, and he quickly determines that the local police is about as much use as a knitted condom, Mort aims to get burly private investigator Ken Karsch involved to provide some handy counter-muscle, but as the pressures from his wife and her new boyfriend increase and Shooter’s mania seemingly turns to outright murder, Mort’s psyche is in danger of fraying at the edges. Did he steal the story? How far will Shooter go? And just what is the perfect ending to the story that started all of this?

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Directed by blockbuster screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man), Secret Window is an ironic beast, chiefly because during its conflict concerning plagiarism, King seemingly has ripped off himself as the story treads an incredibly similar path to his own, superior, The Dark Half, a story that told the tale of a psychotic pseudonym that comes to life to wreck havoc on the writer who created him – however, in a spoiler warning that I now realise has come a little late, you only get the full force of that once we get to the denouement. 
Up until then, Koepp and Depp turn in a thriller that strangely wants to exchange tension and chills for quirks, more quirks and – guess what – chuck a few more quirks in with that, which, while certainly makes the movie halfway watchable, also leaves you watching a movie where you don’t build up a single shred of empathy for anyone involved.
Mort, to put it bluntly, is a petulant piece of poop even before John Shooter comes a-knocking and Depp seems to have joined the cast purely under the understanding that he can say and wear whatever the hell he wants in order to further impatiently shrug off that pretty boy, leading man tag he’s tried to dodge since he first started acting. Watching him skulk, sulk and bitch for the entire movie does prove to be entertaining (Depp’s too witty a thespian to not be anything less than utterly watchable), but you won’t give the slightest toss about what happens to him in the end – even when he starts bizarrely barking like a dog at one point in order to drown out the reality of what’s happening to him. Aside from Depp’s scene chewing gurning, Maria Bello gives good troubled ex-wife while her boyfriend is played by Timothy Hutton who actually starred in George Romero’s adaptation of The Dark Half and proves either to be a cute homage or an inadvertent reminder that this story isn’t exactly original for King. Still, at least John Turturro gives good bug-eye as the be-hatted Shooter who gives us an effective showcase of coiled spring lunacy while leaving his alleged exploits wisely off-screen.

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The choice of making this psycho/thriller so relentlessly kooky and off beat becomes slightly tougher to swallow when you realise that Koepp also directed the incredibly atmospheric Stir Of Echoes, so his decision to load the film with strangely unsympathetic people makes you watch to end simply because you’re curious as to how it’s going to end and not because you actually have anything invested.
Ah, yes. The ending.
Going into spoilerific territory, any move released in the wake of David Fincher’s Fight Club is going to have a hard time of it and the old secret split personality gag is starting to wear a little thin these days – however, despite some very visible visual effects, Koepp carries off the twist to decent effect and even has the nerve to end the film on an ending as chaotic and downbeat as the one that ended that other morally questionable King adaption, Thinner. Story wise, Koepp makes a few savvy adjustments to the original story in keeping Mort’s psychosis purely psychological while omitting the coda that the personality of John Shooter has been so thoroughly created by the mentally ill writer that a ghostly apparition of him is actually visible to an onlooker.

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So the bad news is that Secret Window’s parts end up being greater than its whole thanks to a tone that stubbonly refuses to allow you to care about anyone, but the good news is that for at least one viewing, Koepp, King and Depp’s little bout of smoke and mirrors stokes enough curiosity to keep you vaguely enticed – overall, however, this is one thriller that remains as defiantly split as its main character.

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