[Review] ‘THE SECRETS WE KEEP’ a tale of trauma, revenge in ’50s slice-of-life America

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE SECRETS WE KEEP

Rated R, 97 minutes. 
Director: Yuval Adler
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, and Amy Seimetz

THE SECRETS WE KEEP is a thriller fixated on one woman’s memory of a traumatic event.

Maja (Noomi Rapace), a Romanian woman who escaped her homeland during the Second World War, lives a modest life in a quaint American suburb. She’s married and a mother to a little boy. Suddenly, she hears a sound, a man whistling. She knows this sound. The noise startles Maja, for it was the same whistle she heard as a group of Nazi soldiers cornered her and her family. The women were raped, and everyone executed. Maja survived, managing to flee as shots rang out. It’s a memory that has hardened her and made her impassive. Maja has also hidden the ordeal from everyone, including her husband Lewis (Chris Messina).

Maja’s reactionary response to the whistle is to run. But, surely, this can’t be the same man who killed her sister. Like a perverse take on that classic CASABLANCA line, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…,” Maja’s inquisitiveness leads in tailing the mysterious man – eventually revealed to be Thomas (Joel Kinnaman) – before she lures him into a trap to assault and kidnap him. Murder is contemplated, but she has to be sure this is the bogeyman of a repressed memory. So, Maja takes him home and makes Lewis an accessory, as they tie Thomas to a chair in the basement for interrogation.

THE SECRETS WE KEEP is most taut during the opening act. We see that Maja has a bit of a cold streak, even as her doctor husband interacts with a patient. It may be his practice, but she’s the one ensuring the business stays in business. As Maja goes through with her plan, she’s reckless and a little unhinged. Lewis, serving as a mediator, is hesitant about Maja’s presumption of Thomas. Her nightmare terrors after the war and the use of sleeping aids back up his uncertainty.

Director Yuval Adler (BETHLEHEM) and co-writer Ryan Covington let the script play with ambiguity early into the proceedings as tensions start to arise between husband and wife. It creates an intriguing double triangle with Lewis going behind Maja’s back in offering some measure of solace to Thomas. Then you have Thomas looking like a tied-up tennis spectator, his eyes darting back and forth as the two squabbles over this quagmire with an endgame not yet decided.

A tale of revenge that gets murkier as secret revelations and trust issues arise, THE SECRETS WE KEEP makes the mistake of adding scenes that detract from the story. This includes getting a knock on the door from a local police officer and an inquisitive neighbor across the street about loud sounds in the middle of the night. Also, is the introduction of Thomas’s wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), late into the film. Her appearance is more expository in obtaining some history about her husband and questioning his identity. Rachel also gets to reveal that she, just like Maja, is Jewish.

OK. I can buy Rachel’s inclusion into the story – because she mirrors Maja to a degree as she is also a mother – but the handling is so timeworn that it undermines the narrative and keeps it from being a big piece of pulp fiction. That would have been a more fitting development when you have the 1950s time period and small-town setting with its mom-and-pop shops and a movie theater advertising Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST – a nice Easter egg considering Thomas’s situation.

Instead, Rachel’s purpose is to make Maja reconsider her actions and the overall cost. It is not a debt that can be repaid with smiles or a friendly embrace.

Sadly, while the interrelationship of suspicion and bottled-up trauma coming to a head offers a great mix of subterfuge, THE SECRETS WE KEEP is best left stored away.

Grade: C+

THE SECRETS WE KEEP is now playing in select theaters and will be available 10/16 on VOD.

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