It's been 25 years since Julia Roberts became a certifiable superstar, with two back-to-back Oscar-nominated performances. First, she played the feisty but ill-fated Shelby in Steel Magnolias, then she became the street-wise but soft-hearted hooker, Vivian, in Pretty Woman. The rest, as they say, was history.
There were a few missteps along the way, but Roberts became one of the most bankable stars of the 1990s and was the first actress to take home a $20 million paycheck for her role in Erin Brockovich, the part that would win her a best actress Oscar in 2000.
In the past 15 years, Roberts has kept a somewhat lower profile, preferring to take supporting roles instead of leads. Along the way, she's transitioned from an effervescent movie star into an increasingly adventurous actress. She racked up another Oscar nomination last year for her work opposite Meryl Streep in August: Osage County and she could be on her way to one more with Secret In Their Eyes, a moody, unsettling remake of the 2009 Argentinean drama that won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Moving back and forth between events that happened in 2002 and the present-day, director and screenwriter Billy Ray's intriguing story is like a puzzle in which it takes a while to see how the pieces will fall into place. The 2002 segments find Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the Oscar nominated star of 12 Years A Slave) as members of an anti-terrorism task force in Los Angeles. Jess, played by Roberts, is a veteran investigator who has been brought in to work alongside New York City transplant Ray, played by Ejiofor. Also on board is Claire, played by Nicole Kidman, a new supervisor who's fresh from Philadelphia. It's also a few months after September 11 and there is paranoia in the air as the district attorney fires up fears of a similar attack on the West Coast.
Fear hits home when the body of Jess' teenage daughter, Caroline, is found in a Dumpster outside a mosque that the team had been watching. Ray tracks down a suspect, Claire helps him get a confession and then the case completely falls apart. So does Jess, who quickly loses her faith in the system as well as her spirit.
Thirteen years later, Claire has become district attorney and Ray has returned to L.A., armed with new information about the suspect that previously eluded them. The rest of Secret In Their Eyes examines the tricky business of the justice process, as Ray and Claire are caught between playing by the rules and working outside the lines to ensure that Jess finally sees her daughter's killer behind bars.
Ejiofor is terrific in detailing Ray's desperation to do what's right, and Kidman paints a believable picture of a woman whose style and professionalism turn out to be a thin disguise for a conflicted conscience. But it is Roberts who gives the movie its soul. All traces of glamour are stripped away as she plunges into Jess' dark heart, pulling out every ounce of anguish and anxiety. Her glazed-over eyes seem to have gone numb and she speaks in a parched, cracked voice that makes it sound as if every word is a challenge.
Although Secret In Their Eyes builds to a startling final twist, the real surprise of the movie is just how volcanic Roberts allows herself to be. While she may forever be known as the star of Pretty Woman, performances like this one confirm that over the years she's turned into a pretty compelling actress as well.