Director and co-writer Yuval Adler’s “The Secrets We Keep” is one-half period thriller and one-half domestic drama. Set in small-town America during the late 1950’s, the movie embraces the implausibility of its premise while touching on post-war anxiety, revenge, the fragility of the American Dream, and (as the movie’s title eludes to) keeping secrets from loved ones and then dealing with the consequences once they inevitably come to light.
The aptly titled “The Secrets We Keep” opens with a woman named Maja (Noomi Rapace) sitting in the grass at her neighborhood park watching her young son play. She’s rattled when she hears a distinct whistle coming from a man calling his dog. It’s a familiar whistle; one she’s convinced she has heard before; one that instantly triggers traumatic memories from her past. She follows the man as he gets into his car, never seeing his face but certain their paths have crossed.
A day or so later Maja sees the man again (he’s played by Joel Kinneman), this time at a hardware store. Still unable to get a good look at him, she follows the man to his house where he is greeted by his wife and two young children. Maja sneaks across their yard, peers through a window and finally sees his face.
Her next move is far more calculated. As the man walks home from work he stops to help Maja who fakes car trouble. With his back turned she clubs him with a hammer, throws him in the trunk, and drives home. There she reveals to her stunned husband Lewis (Chris Messina) that she has abducted one of the Nazi soldiers who raped her and murdered her sister during the final days of World War II. How’s that for a revelation? And all of that happens in the first 15 minutes or so.
The fast setup and little buildup is a bit jarring, but you certainly can’t accuse Adler of dragging his feet. At least not in the first act. But once his pieces are in place the film slows down and lets the characters open up and take over. It still has the big (and small) genre moments you expect. But it’s at its best when it lets the triad of Rapace, Kinnaman, and Messina navigate the thorny psychology, volatile emotions, and the dubious morality that hangs over the film like a ominous cloud.
Rapace is terrific, giving a strong two-sided performance that requires both physicality and emotional heft. Her Maja is a woman full of repressed sorrow and painful secrets. Seeing this man again forces her to relive all of her past horrors. But the question lingers, does she have the right guy? There is no evidence and nothing to go on other than her feelings and flashes of old memories. He insists she’s mistaken and his name is Thomas. He says he is Swiss not German, and that he moved to America to start a family with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz). Kinnaman’s sincerity and restraint make a strong case.
That leaves Messina’s Lewis, a man utterly in the dark who wants to believe his wife but understands the ramifications of her being wrong. He’s still processing the slew of secrets hidden by his wife for 15 years – her family’s Gypsy background, her time in a war camp, the rape, the murder of her sister. More urgently, he has the determine whether to go with Maja’s instincts or stop her from crossing a line and making a mistake she will come to regret. This ends up forming the central conflict of the entire film.
Shot mostly in Louisiana, Adler and his production designer Nate Jones nail the look and feel of the late 1950’s and of small-town America. It was a time when aftershocks from the second world war were still being felt all over the world. “The Secrets We Keep” taps into that yet on a more personal level. But it’s still very much a genre film albeit one that is well acted, consistently entertaining, and that dabbles in its themes more than explores them. Overall it’s not a bad way to spend 97 minutes. “The Secrets We Keep” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS