Warning: This story contains MAJOR SPOILERS about the ending of Secret in Their Eyes.
The final scene in the crime thriller Secret in Their Eyes, now in theaters, is truly one of the biggest OMG endings of the year, delivering an "I did not see that coming" twist that recalibrates everything you thought you knew about one of the film's central characters, an FBI agent played by Julia Roberts.
That is, unless, like Roberts, you've seen El Secreto de Sus Ojos, the 2009 Argentine crime thriller that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and inspired the American adaptation from writer-director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass).
"I was knocked out by it," Roberts told BuzzFeed News of El Secreto de Sus Ojos. "You're just gutted. It's like this quiet opera."
And there were three key changes Ray made to the Argentine film's story that made Secret in Their Eyes' twisty ending even darker and, if possible, more shocking.
In the original, the victim at the center of the story is the wife of Ricardo Morales, a civilian who otherwise recedes into the background — until 25 years later, when he confesses to the lead investigator of the case that he secretly killed the prime suspect years earlier. The investigator, however, discovers that instead, Morales has kept the suspect locked up in his rural home for those 25 years.
For the American version, the first big change Ray made is that the victim is now the teenage daughter of Jess Cobb (Roberts), an FBI anti-terrorism agent, and the lead investigator on the case is Jess's best friend, Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Kasten becomes obsessed with finding the surly kid who confessed to the crime, Marzin (Joe Cole), after he slips away from custody and disappears without a trace. And that leads to Ray's second big change: Thirteen years later, Kasten comes back to Los Angeles convinced he's found Marzin. As Kasten plunges back into his investigation, Jess must keep secret that she, in fact, had kidnapped Marzin and imprisoned him for 13 years in a shed in her backyard in a rural home on the outskirts of L.A.
"That reveal at the end was just too good to give to the fifth most important character in the movie," Ray told BuzzFeed News. "You just can't do that in an American movie."
That change also proposed a major acting challenge for Roberts, who had to keep the secret of what Jess had done with Marzin while still making Jess's motives and behavior consistent with the movie's big reveal.
"That was probably the most technical [challenge]," Roberts said. "I would always say to Billy, 'OK, what do I really know? What do I not know? What have I told an untruth about?' We definitely talked about that a lot, because 13 years is a really long time. She's kind of heartbreaking to me because I think that she kind of made one knee-jerk decision and was stuck. Couldn't unstick it. And with every day, every week, then every year, it becomes more unstuckable."
Added Ray, "The first thing we talked about was, 'OK, Jess hasn't had a date in 13 years. She hasn't had sex in 13 years. Hasn't left town in 13 years. And has gone to work every day knowing this could be the day that the gas company guy comes to read the meter and hears someone.'"
Since Roberts couldn't telegraph her character's secret, she and Ray invested a great deal of care in how Jess's appearance would have changed over those 13 years. "I think she's just this empty shell of a person," said Roberts. "And I think that 13 years of keeping this person alive… She's a robot."
Ray credited Roberts with suggesting she wear gray contact lenses to wash out her eyes, while he and costume designer Shay Cunliffe zeroed in on the idea that Jess would just always dress in her work uniform, a drab wardrobe of ill-fitting khakis and a shapeless dark blue shirt.
"I thought, Do I really have the nerve to go up to Julia Roberts and say, 'This is what you're going to be wearing'?" Ray said with a laugh.
But it was an insight from Roberts's husband Danny Moder, who also served as the film's cinematographer, that helped both she and Ray realize they couldn't let Jess's appearance get too far gone.
"Of course I had all these amazing ideas of all the things I was going to do to myself to relay the emptiness and everything," said Roberts. "And [Danny] said, 'Whatever you do, you have to make sure that when Chiwetel sees you for the first time, he doesn't think, What other new thing has happened? Is she ill? Has something else happened to her? What did I miss?' And so it was something that was very carefully measured."
The relationship between Jess and Kasten was especially important given the third and final change Ray made for the American version: When Kasten discovers Jess standing next to Marzin's cell, he cocks his gun, puts it down, and walks out.
"If the movie is about the cost of obsession, the ending has to be the ultimate expression of that idea," said Ray. "And that's what Chiwetel and Julia are saying to each other at the end, whether they're saying it with words or just looks. They're talking about the cost of obsession."
Added Roberts, "He's kind of the most terrifying best friend when he puts that gun down and then walks out. Like, 'I have to do this?'"
The scene is so fraught that when Kasten goes outside and begins to dig a grave, the audience is left unsure at first whether the ensuing gunshot was Jess killing Marzin, or Jess killing herself — until Jess emerges outside and regards Kasten with a look of relief and sadness. And that, said both Roberts and Ray, is as it should be.
"When you hear that gun go off, I think you should wonder," said Roberts. "Because, really, it's over a hundred different ways for her at that point. Anything could have happened in there when that gunshot went off."
"I still think [she might kill herself]," said Ray to Roberts. "And I know you come out."
Roberts laughed. "Maybe it'll be on the extended DVD version!"
The title of the film at the center of this story is Secret in Their Eyes; an earlier version mistakenly called it Secrets in Their Eyes.