Missionary Positions

''Secret Window'' with Johnny Depp, ''Latter Days'' is a powerhouse

by Randy Shulman
Published on March 18, 2004, 12:00am | Comments

Latter Days C. Jay Cox's Latter Days is a powerhouse that grabs your heart and wrenches and wrenches away. Who knew that Cox, author of Sweet Home Alabama, had this much talent? Clearly, when he's not writing Hollywood tripe, he's attempting to bring actual meaning to cinema, intelligently and without sacrificing a single drop of entertainment.

Latter Days

A bittersweet romance between a Los Angeles gay party boy and a young Mormon coming to grips with his own homosexuality, Latter Days explores the gay state of being with an honesty and integrity not typically found in glossy Hollywood-aimed commodities. In these days of gay marriage taking front and center stage, Latter Days is a bold reminder that gay relationships do indeed carry weight to those involved in them.

"It doesn't have to mean anything," whispers Christian (Wesley Ramsey) to the jittery Mormon Aaron Davis (Steve Sandvoss) as they gravitate toward a sexual rendezvous.

Latter Days

"Yes," Davis replies, soberly, "it does."

When Davis is later excommunicated from the Mormon charge for "the grave and grievous sin of homosexuality," he asks his brittle mother (Mary Kay Place, in the most searing performance of her career), "What if it's is not something I've done? What if it's who I am?" What follows is one of the most bracing confrontations between mother and son in the history of cinema, gay-themed or otherwise.

Latter Days
Wesley Ramsey
and Steve Sandvoss
and Mary
Kay Place
108 Minutes
E Street Cinemas

Of the two leads, Sandvoss gives the more bracing, compelling performance. Sturdy supporting work is provided by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Third Rock from the Sun) as a virulently homophobic Mormon, Erik Palladino (ER) as a bitter gay man enduring the final stages of AIDS and Jacqueline Bisset as a restaurateur who dispenses matronly wisdom a la carte.

Dig a little deeper into Latter Days and you'll find the movie that M. Night Shyalaman's Signs was meant to be -- sans alien attacks -- as Cox deftly explores the connections between coincidence and destiny, fate and miracles, love, longing and loss.

The minute you see the dog in Secret Window, you know it's a goner.

The cute, scruffy little mutt with cataracts keeps renowned horror writer Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) company in a secluded but nicely appointed cabin in the woods, somewhere in upstate New York. When Rainey is visited by a mysterious, threatening Mississippian named John Shooter (John Turturro), who accuses the author of plagiarizing a story of his, it's no big shock when, a day later, the dog turns up with a screwdriver stuck in its skull. It's a warning to Rainey that things are going to get a lot uglier if he doesn't comply with Shooter's demand to "maaaahk thaaangs raaaahght. "

Well, things do get uglier. What they don't get is less predictable.

And whether or not you figure out the movie's secret before it's actually revealed, you're still likely to be disappointed in the final outcome.

Directed by David Koepp, who also adapted the screenplay from the Stephen King novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden " from the collection Four Past Midnight, the story probably worked better on the page. On the screen, it's a troubled, leaden affair, salvaged only slightly by yet another quirky acting turn by Depp, whose Rainer is disheveled, bitter and depressed, end products of divorce proceedings from his unfaithful wife, Amy (Maria Bello).

Secret Window

Starring Johnny Depp and John Turturro
Rated PG-13
97 Minutes
Area Theatres

The movie's big question is less reliant on what Shooter wants than who Shooter is. When Shooter's identity is revealed, in a scene that calls to mind an equally ludicrous moment in Spiderman (which, by the way, Koepp wrote), it's less a revelatory moment than one primed for a giant, honking collective groan. If this is what we've wasted our time for, we think to ourselves, then what was the point of killing the dog?

Maybe it got in the way of the camera crew.

Secret Window is filled with so many red herrings, one could have a veritable feast if one were to filet them, cream them, and serve them with a box of crackers. A big box.

Depp's performance is too remote to engage us. There is simply no good reason for us to become emotionally invested in this reclusive, oddball writer. Turturro, a fine actor also known for less-than-subtle characters, calls to mind a younger, chunkier version of the demonic preacher who comes a-callin' for little Carol Ann in Poltergeist 2. Turturro's Mississippi drawl is the epitome of Southern discomfort -- you cringe in terror every time he opens his mouth and an elongated vowel spills out. At least Turturro is consistent. Timothy Hutton, as Amy's new beau, keeps slipping on the Tennessee accent required of his character, as though the dialogue before him was comprised of banana peels.

Koepp shows some promise as a director of thrillers -- he has a strong grasp of how to utilize the camera in a menacing manner -- but boy does he needs to work on his choice of material. If he doesn't, his directing career may remain forever mired in secrecy.