Forgiving the Past: Reading an Omission Within "Secret in Their Eyes" (2015)

Updated on May 13, 2020
EC Wells profile image

I skimmed a 2015 film review of "Secret in Their Eyes" by Stephen Holden at "The New York Times." But this article isn't about that.

Beyond suspension of disbelief, some films require imaginative work to process.

Intention isn't necessarily part of this. We needn't fall upon the idea that this film being mystery justifies our scrutiny.

The details, and lack of details, within some films require considerable, imaginative dexterity to hold together in any frame short of irrealism. Those feats of imagination can be enjoyable to consider in retrospect. This is such an attempt, to forgive the past and work toward appreciating "Secret in Their Eyes" as such an exercise.

Julia Roberts in “Secret in Their Eyes,” a film directed by Billy Ray. Credit STX Entertainment
Julia Roberts in “Secret in Their Eyes,” a film directed by Billy Ray. Credit STX Entertainment | Source

This 2015 American film is based on an earlier 2010 Argentinian Oscar winning film. With two iterations, viewers, particularly mystery enthusiasts, might expect all the bumps to be ironed. I have not seen the Argentinian original, so I can't comment on whether following blindly or departing from the path resulted in the American, but it hardly seems to matter from the perspective I'll be developing.


The story within this film begins in a post-911 America. The FBI is actively watching places of interest. Jessica Cobb (Julia Roberts) and Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are agents working active surveillance.

The body of Jessica's daughter, Carolyn, is found just outside the site that Jessica and Ray are watching. A suspect, Marzin, is identified, protected by another agent (on the grounds of being an informant), yet later apprehended. During this detainment the suspect assaults the federal prosecutor, Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman), only to be released.

Thirteen years later, Ray, no longer with the FBI, is still looking for the suspect. He is certain he has found the suspect, just being released on parole. The parolee's face is different, but Ray is convinced.

What's to Forgive

Stephen Holden calls out classic film points in picking apart the film: the flow "clumsily boomerangs back and forth between then and now," the acting is "extreme performance" or "barely registers," there's "strained, flat-footed dialogue," and the "the original movie was much more visceral."

I want to focus on an omission which forces inventive re-imaginings of the film..


The entirety of the mystery and suspense within this film is based on identity.

It is not unremarkable then that the original film is Argentinian. Argentina is the birthplace of forensic fingerprinting. While the practice of fingerprinting dates back to 1000 BC, the first documented criminal conviction using fingerprints occurred in 1892 in Necochea, near Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"Secret in Their Eyes" requires the viewer to construct a world, Earth, post-911, replete with modern technology (computers, phones, cars, etc). Yet asks the viewer to imagine a world where someone working closely with the FBI as an informant, who is a suspect in the murder of an FBI agent's daughter, and who assaults a federal prosecutor is never fingerprinted. Beyond these commonplace reasons for fingerprinting, the agents investigating within the film violate the suspect's rights and liberties, by breaking into his home, taking his property, coercing him, and using excessive force against him. Yet, they never consider lifting a print through proper channels or otherwise.

Thirteen years later that print could be use when Ray believes he finds the suspect now exiting the prison system, as surely the parolee would be documented in the prison term.

There are two other mentions of identifying attributes in the film. The first is explicit in the film, DNA. Collecting DNA has become common practice, but it remains to many a more invasive form of identification. Its preeminence in popular culture at the time of the film and the film's setting may be used to explain it being put at the foreground in the film. Though it may also be read as a blinder for watchers, a distraction from other identifiers, such as fingerprints. Such psychological manipulation is used in Claire and Ray's coercive interview of the suspect.

The other form of identification which is only indirectly brought into the film uses an individual's iris as a distinguishing feature. The indirect admission, is in the title, "Secret in Their Eyes." Notably, this is a technology that developed during the time period the film is set in, from 2001 through 2015. This period saw the first patents for iris as identification technology and the first instances of adoption by law-enforcement organizations. Of course, the indirect admission within the film, may also be read a direct omission within the film.

So, then how can we perceive a coherent world with these details?

This is the fun part. Considering what we are given about the world of the film, there are many directions we might go in, which are likely to be comfortably short of irrealism.

Trusting the Text

Here's what is known:

  • Earth
  • post-911
  • FBI presence
  • DNA technology exists and is used

The most obvious and simple reading is that people don't have fingerprints in this world. Or that their fingerprints are not sufficiently unique to be used as identifying features. Or somehow the technology to document and compare DNA arose before the technology to document and compare fingerprints. Perhaps to really appreciate this film, one has to have something of one's self turned off, as occurs with various characters at various times within the film.

While these readings each provide coherence to the world created within the film, they don't necessarily generate a more satisfying experience of the film. They do fit nicely the omission of the words "print" and "finger" in the film's script, though.

Consider these lines:

"Yeah, right. And then Marzin's gonna pull up in a stolen gray van with Carolyn's DNA under his nails, and everybody wins." (from

General Likability

(click column header to sort results)
Google Users  
The Guardian (Mark Kermode)  
Rotten Tomatoes  
83% like the film
41% like the film
39% Tomato-meter
3 / 5 stars
3.1 / 5 (average rating)
3.15 / 5 (calculated from 6.3 / 10) stars

© 2019 EC Wells

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