This week, Bleecker Street’s The Secrets We Keep hits theaters in a limited run. The 1950s-set revenge story explores the aftermath of life-changing trauma, both for the victim and for the abuser, and how the events of the past are cyclical for those who don’t learn how to find peace with it.
Directed by Yuval Adler and from a script by Ryan Covington, it stars Noomi Rapace as Maja, a European Romani gypsy who lost her family at the hands of a brutal, vicious attack by Nazi soldiers at the tail end of World War II. Now married to a gentle American doctor, Lewis (Chris Messina), the pair have a son and have resettled in the U.S. But Maja’s trauma continues to haunt her, and when she spots a man (Joel Kinnaman) in her neighborhood she swears is one of the Nazis who brutalized her, her fragile peace is upended. She impulsively kidnaps him, determined to force a confession out of him. But the man swears he’s a Swedish expat named Thomas, not a German Nazi. The tension mounts as the lines between fact and fuzzy memory blur and Maja’s certainty begins to splinter. As Thomas provides more and more evidence he’s not the man she thinks he is, but someone with a loving wife, (Amy Seimetz), Maja’s obsession with revenge threatens to tear two different families apart.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am real-life friends with the writer, Ryan Covington. With or without that connection, however, I’d have enjoyed the hell out of this movie: Secrets is a layered drama that turns out to be far more than your standard revenge thriller plot. Here are three reasons it’s worth seeing if theaters in your area are open and abiding by safety measures.
1. It Keeps You Guessing From The Start
As I noted above, Secrets isn’t your straightforward revenge flick where Person A did Terrible Thing B causing Victim C to enact their revenge. It’s as much an exploration of the cost of vengeance as the act of vengeance itself, a character study of how trauma continues to shape Maja years later. It makes us question if revenge is really worth it at all: Will it bring Maja actual peace, or will it simply turn her into a monster if she crosses a certain line? Is it even possible for her to let go and move on?
While Maja’s motivations are certainly understandable, her actions are steeped in uncertainty. Questions of Thomas’ identity persist, as do questions about the reliability of Maja’s memories. As the audience surrogate, her loyal husband, Lewis, begins to doubt his wife’s actions, his belief in the truth of what she’s saying is shaken as Thomas continues to insist he’s an innocent man and even provides evidence. He doubts as we doubt. Watching Secrets created an interesting sense of disquiet in me: I firmly believe we need to believe women when they say the things that happened to them happened to them. Yet, there I was, questioning whether or not Maja’s account of the assault could be trusted. You want to believe Maja, but a tiny seed of disbelief is planted early and grows throughout. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but I will say that because of the constant guessing game the movie makes you play with yourself, I fully did not anticipate the events of the climax. The quick but crucial moment turns everything on its head, the movie leading you one way before yanking the rug out from under you. Well-played.
2. The Acting Is Fantastic
Everyone in this movie brings their A-game. Rapace and Messina carry the lion’s share of the emotional weight, with Maja dealing with her rekindled grief and trauma and Lewis struggling to support his wife while reeling with the enormous secrets she’s kept from him. Their dynamic is particularly interesting as it inverts the opposite sex gender dynamic we usually see in a revenge thriller: Normally, it’s the man seeking bloody vengeance and the female love interest as the one to ground him – or he’s saving her, period. But Secrets paints Maja as the hardened one, with a dark streak that scares both her and her husband, Rapace wavering back and forth between a dead-eyed darkness of the soul to a woman who knows she’s gone too far. Lewis, meanwhile, is a gentle man, always ready to lend a hand to anyone in need, and miraculously untouched by the horrors of World War II. Messina plays Lewis as a man quietly reeling as his world comes apart but desperately trying to hide it in order to support his wife and the tension between them is palpable as it grows.
Likewise, Kinnaman is fantastic as the mysterious Thomas. When your character starts off with a charge of “Nazi accused of brutal war crimes,” it’s awfully hard for the audience to make the leap to sympathy unless you have a skilled actor who can win them over. But Kinnaman is just such an actor and he plays Thomas with a desperate intensity that wins us over despite what we have been told, Kinnaman’s ability to elicit sympathy arguably the largest reason for the doubt we feel.
3. It Portrays A Seldom-Shown Group Of People
The original script for Secrets had Maja written as a Jewish woman. But Rapace, whose father is a Spanish flamenco dancer of gypsy descent, saw an opportunity to make her character Romani, an ethnic group that is seldom portrayed in Hollywood. Most Americans hear the word “gypsy” and it conjures a vague vision of swirling skirts with metal disks, crystal balls and caravans. But the Romani people are a distinct ethnic group in Europe with a full and rich culture. As nomads whose very origins are based in the concept of freedom and thus not being tied to a homeland, a group of Romani moved into Europe roughly a thousand years ago. They’ve suffered a great deal of persecution and even various pogroms over the centuries since, accused of various things from witchcraft to arson to just being Other.
But even in modern times, their story is little-known and often tragic. Most people don’t know, for example, that Nazis murdered up to 500,000 gypsies in a genocide similar to the Jewish people during World War II. An enormous, heartbreaking number and yet not a story we ever hear or focus on in movies and TV about the Holocaust. While Maja being Romani isn’t the main focus of Secrets, it does shed light on the Romani and brings the long-overdue story of their own suffering to the screen.
In all, The Secrets We Keep is a taut drama with enough nuance and depth of character to propel it well past your basic revenge thriller, with a final act that will keep you thinking for quite some time. It’s in theaters this Wednesday, September 16th.