Depp keeps 'Secret Window' from slamming on viewers

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Special to the Journal-World

Johnny Depp stars as a mystery writer stalked by a man who has accused him of plagiarism in the horror-thriller, "Secret Window."

It's hard to name an actor more versed at elevating pulp material to a stylish level than Johnny Depp.

The Oscar-nominated actor was the best thing about "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," and he's certainly what keeps the horror-thriller "Secret Window" engaging.

Depp holds the audience's attention from the very first frame, in which he is shown debating his own conscience before embarking on a decision with severe consequences.

In "Secret Window," Depp plays Mort Rainey, a successful mystery novelist who has sequestered himself in a spacious lakeside cabin to write his latest book. He is there because his wife (Maria Bello) is occupying their upstate New York abode while the two finalize a divorce.

The strain of the failed relationship is leading to a case of writer's block for Mort. But what really ruptures his concentration is when a creepy hick named John Shooter (John Turturro) shows up at his door. Sporting a black preacher's hat and an icy demeanor, the Mississippi man insists that Mort stole one of his stories and needs to set the record straight.

Before long, the situation begins to escalate, as do the violent consequences. Soon Mort's estranged wife and her new jerk-wad boyfriend (Timothy Hutton) are drawn into the conflict.

Yet there are hints that this kind of plagiaristic accusation has been leveled at Mort before. And what is the real reason that motivates Shooter to go to such extreme lengths?

"Secret Window" is based on a 1990 Stephen King story and directed/adapted by veteran scribe David Koepp, whose screenwriting credits include "Spider-Man" and "Panic Room." (King gave up his rights to the film in order to secure those for TV's "Kingdom Hospital" -- which explains why the author's presence is so downplayed in the picture's marketing campaign.)

It's hard to blame King that in the last year WAY TOO MANY films have taken a realistically taut setup and jumped ship for an ending rife with psychological mumbo-jumbo. Like the recent thrillers "Identity" and "Swimming Pool," this film indulges in a spurious plot twist that it can never recover from.

Koepp and King provide plenty of clues to the "surprise." Even those barely paying attention will notice the film's preoccupation with mirrors -- and product placement of Doritos for that matter. Anyone who owns a dog, however, will be tipped off early during the first meeting between the stalker and his quarry.

Movie

Secret Window ** 1/2

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Johnny Depp succeeds in energizing the simmering tale of a mystery writer stalked by a creepy hick (John Turturro) who accuses him of plagiarism. But "Secret Window" ends up just another recent example of a thriller that takes a realistically taut setup and jumps ship for an ending rife with psychological mumbo-jumbo.

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Despite this bogus ending -- which eventually proves more O. Henry than anything else -- Depp's mere presence justifies seeing the movie. With his perpetually mussed-up hair and mousy mannerisms, the real joy is watching how the actor deals with everyday situations, from his clumsy battles with inanimate objects to his hilarious arguments with the "rubbernecking" Hutton.

Also amusing are his internal struggles to get his novel on track. At one point when he is unhappy with an introductory paragraph that he has been pondering too long, Depp screams, "This is just bad writing. No bad writing!"

It's a shame the filmmakers couldn't wholly heed Depp's advice.

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Special to the Journal-World

John Turturro, left, and Johnny Depp battle it out in Stephen King's "Secret Window."

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