Trauma has a funny way of wiggling its way back into the brain. You’ll never know what triggers it but, without any warning, you’ll find yourself on alert. The memories come rushing back, playing themselves over and over in the head. In Yuval Adler’s THE SECRETS WE KEEP, we are taken through a high stakes journey as a women’s trauma from World War II resurfaces and she takes actions that aim at getting revenge for all the wrongs done to her. While the acting performances delivered by all were really strong, the film itself feels hollow, leaving one wondering what it is that seems to be missing from what should have, arguably, been a standout thriller.
Yuval Adler directs THE SECRETS WE KEEP. He co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Covington. The film stars Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, and Amy Seimetz. In THE SECRETS WE KEEP, we are introduced to Maja (Noomi Rapace), a Romani Holocaust survivor living in Post-World War II America. Since arriving in America, she has been steadily trying to rebuild her life and reconcile with the traumatic memories of the past. Those memories bubble back up to the surface when she hears a man’s (Joel Kinnaman) familiar whistle. Obsessed with finding out if this neighbor is the man connected to her traumatic memories, she follows him and – eventually – kidnaps him. What unfolds between Maja, this man, and Maja’s husband, Lewis,(Chris Messina) is a complicated lesson on truth, even if barely articulated onscreen.
THE SECRETS WE KEEP launches us almost immediately into Maja’s discovery. A man whistles for his dog and it’s this seemingly innocent sound that opens up a wide world of possibilities. As we watch Maja onscreen and watch as she grapples with her own trauma, especially in terms of remembering key bits of information that have slipped between her fingers, it’s difficult not to emphasize. Especially as Noomi Rapace gives her all in her scenes as a woman desperately trying to find answers and revenge for the wrongs that had been committed against her. Despite her strong, empathy-inducing performance, there is a lot that carries out onscreen that left me wondering more about the other players we’re introduced to in the film.
Joel Kinnaman’s character is an enigma, purposefully left vague as so to sow seeds of doubt into the viewer’s mind as well as in Lewis’s mind. Kinnaman infuses his character with an earnestness that makes that doubt believable to take in. However, of the character itself, there’s not much that resonates off-page. This sparsity, in terms of character development, can also be observed in the relationship between Maja and Lewis. Despite the best efforts of Rapace and Chris Messina and their interactions onscreen, it’s difficult to gauge truly what the extent of their relationship is despite the secrets they do keep from each other. It seems barely together. I’d say dangling by a thread, but that may have more to do with the lack of development of the relationship itself on paper. Messina has a more difficult challenge as Lewis, whose motivations are hard to pinpoint down aside from preserving the family and its image. What brief moments we get onscreen with Amy Seimetz are utilized mostly for exposition, but she infuses her character with enough emotion and care to make the most of what she is given.
There are little seeds of potential sprinkled throughout this screenplay. There is a focus on PTSD, the lingering aftereffects of a worldwide traumatic event, the idea of truth and what that grants us, and even in a brief moment focusing on assimilation into American society. But nothing really takes the time to sprout and blossom into full view in this feature. For the most part, we’re only just scratching the surface of what could have been in THE SECRETS WE KEEP, wanting more from the screenplay itself than it has to give. And, perhaps, that is my biggest frustration with this film. There are fragments of ideas competing against each other, so nothing ends up being fully fleshed out. As such, this makes it incredibly difficult to figure out what is the driving point of the feature.
The time period the film takes place in visually is paired down. However, to this reviewer, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing. Many period pieces during the late ’50s are generally displayed in far shinier wrapping. THE SECRETS WE KEEP conveys a working-class, small-town feeling in its visual aesthetic. With the combined efforts of production designer Nate Jones and cinematographer Kolja Brandt, both create visuals that help assist to provide a relatability to immerse a more modern audience into the world they are stepping into. While some might think it is too modern in its styling, I think it provides a less polished, more relatable feel that keeps it from seeming too alien and distanced.
Yuval Adler’s THE SECRETS WE KEEP has potential. There is something there just trying to figure out how to burrow its way out from beneath the surface. And, with what the cast is given, they all make their best efforts to uplift the material. Rapace, herself, is a standout as she maneuvers through the variety of emotions that come with battling this level of trauma. However, strong performances cannot make up for the fact that there’s much left to be desired as the credits start to roll. That feeling that something is missing doesn’t leave you after the film’s finished. And that might be the worst gift a film could bring to its viewer.
THE SECRETS WE KEEP is available now in select theaters, and will become available on Video On Demand on October 16, 2020.