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Film / Secret Window

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"You stole my story."

Secret Window is a 2004 Psychological Thriller, starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Charles S. Dutton, Timothy Hutton, and Len Cariou. It was written and directed by David Koepp, based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King, collected in Four Past Midnight.

Mystery writer Mort Rainey is severely depressed and in the middle of a divorce. He’s been holed up in his cabin for weeks when one morning John Shooter from Mississippi arrives and accuses Mort of plagiarizing his short story "Sowing Season". Shooter demands retribution. Mort insists he wrote his story first, but makes futile attempts to prove it. He finally tells Shooter he’ll send for a copy of the Ellery Queen magazine issue in which Mort's story was published, and this will prove his was written first. Shooter agrees this will settle the matter, but while Shooter waits for the magazine to arrive, people begin turning up dead.

Beware of spoilers! This movie has some major plot twists.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: In the end Mort tries to stab Amy with scissors. If it's intentional or not it's unknown.
  • The Alcoholic: Mort is implied to be a recovering alcoholic; at one point, Amy pointedly comments that Mort's chief inspiration for the short story "Sowing Season" was drinking Jack Daniel's. When she comes to visit Mort's cabin near the end of the film there's a nearly-empty bottle of bourbon on the coffee table, implying that Mort has fallen Off the Wagon, if indeed he was ever on it.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The ending of the film is completely changed from the novella, despite both keeping the reveal that Mort Rainey is suffering from multiple personality disorder and is in fact his own tormentor John Shooter. However, it then diverges when in the film Mort kills his wife and her new husband and buries them in his garden, the same ending as the novel he was writing in-universe. In the novella, Mort does attempt to kill his wife after his Split-Personality Takeover but ends up getting killed instead when someone else arrives to save her. An epilogue shows her discussing Mort's mental break with her husband and hints that Shooter might be Real After All.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Ted is such an unlikable Jerkass that it’s weirdly satisfying to see Mort/Shooter beat him to death with a shovel.
    • To a mildly lesser extent, Amy, a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing who refuses to take responsibility for her own actions, but seemed to care about Mort’s wellbeing to some extent.
  • Ax-Crazy: Mort when is in his John Shooter persona becomes a vicious and ruthless murderer. He kills his own dog with a screwdriver. He later does the same with Ken Karsch and Tom Greenleaf (also using an hatchet) and finally kills Amy and Ted with a shovel.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In stark contrast to the novel, the movie ends with the evil personality not only taking over the protagonist near the end, but succesfully murdering his ex-wife and her lover. He buries them in his backyard and grows a corn field over it. The police can't prove anything without any bodies and Mort consequently remains a free man. The movie chillingly ends the way Mort's own story does, with the murderous main character savouring some cooked corn cobs fertilized by his victims' corpses.
  • Bait the Dog: Done deliberately with the film version - according to the director, by the time our protagonist finally snaps completely and kills his ex-wife and her boyfriend, we were meant to be too involved with him to stop cheering him on.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Amy often acts as though she’s worried about Mort and seems like she regrets cheating on him and divorcing him. However, she refuses to take responsibility for her actions, acting like her infidelity was justified by their marriage being dead (according to her) and only checks in on Mort as a way to manipulate him into signing the divorce papers so she doesn’t have to deal with him. That said, her concern for Mort is somewhat genuine, though her desire to get him out of her life is greater, which likely helps Shooter take control of Mort.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Ken Karsch is the first person that Shooter kills, though a flashback shows Tom Greenleaf died only a few seconds after.
  • Character Tics: Mort's habit of opening his mouth and clicking his jaw, which occurs more and more often as he becomes more and more unhinged. This is an actual symptom of schizophrenia.
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: When Mort is eventually revealed to be the killer, Sheriff Newsome interrupts his nonchalant casual conversation and bluntly says in a matter of fact tone that while he can't find the bodies, he knows Mort killed Amy and Ted. And of course, since he's a split personality murderer, Mort is completely confused by the sheriff's out-of-nowhere comment. Also, Mort is told to stop coming into town at certain parts of the day since the locals are freaked out by him. The implications are strong, granted, but the authorities still never find the bodies.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: The Reveal of who the killer is and what his motive truly is.
  • Dead Animal Warning: Mort's dog is killed with a screwdriver and left as a warning by his Stalker Without A Crush. John Shooter is revealed to be in Mort's head the whole time. Mort killed his own dog.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mort.
    Mort: Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't on the verge of doing Snoopy dances.
  • Death by Adaptation: Amy and Ted. In the novella, Mort died instead.
  • Dream Sequence: Mort has one where he, while laying in his couch, finds that it is now atop a cliff leading into a river, Foreshadowing how he disposed of the bodies of Ken Karsch and Tom Greenleaf.
  • Expy: Ken Karsch bares a resemblance to Claude Kersek from the 1990s remake of Cape Fear, with both being arrogant and cocky Private Detectives who are hired by the protagonist to help scare off a psycho who is harassing them, gravely underestimate said psycho, and are ultimately murdered by them.
  • Foot-Dragging Divorcee: Mort Rainey. It gets to the point where even his wife's new boyfriend is nagging him to get it over with.
  • Freudian Excuse: Amy's affair with Ted is the main cause of Mort's Writer's Block and later revealed his Split Personality.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Mort when he finds out that Shooter isn't a real person, and was his split personality.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • Ted being stabbed repeatedly by Shooter with a shovel is left offscreen.
    • Played with by Amy's death. While her being beaten by Shooter/Mort, having her head slammed with a rock, and being stabbed with a screwdriver are all shown onscreen, how she is ultimately murdered is never shown.
  • Imaginary Enemy: It turns out that the killer is a cross between this and a Split Personality of the main character.
  • Inner Monologue: Mort has one on occasion. Deconstructed, since it turns out to have been a case of Hearing Voices and one of the signs of his schizophrenia.
  • It's Been Done: The plot revolves around a man threatening Mort for stealing his story, only to find out that Mort published his story a full two years before he claimed to have written it. Of course, it all ends up being a moot point when it's revealed the whole thing is Mort arguing with himself.
  • Jerkass: Ted.
  • Karma Houdini: After Mort murders his ex-wife and her lover, he successfully disposes of the bodies. He continues to live in the town while the locals are terrified of him and gets away with his crimes because the police can't prove anything without solid evidence, but the sheriff makes it pretty clear that he damn well knows what Mort did.
  • Kick the Dog: Poor Chico. In the novel, poor Bump.
    • Often hits as Fridge Horror for first time watchers because they tend to forget the dog/cat in the rest of the chaos and then remember at the end that if Mort and Shooter are the same person, then Mort killed his own dog/cat.
  • The Killer in Me: John Shooter does not exist; he is a schizophrenic hallucination undergone by Mort Rainey to commit acts (murder, arson) Mort could never consciously bring himself to do.
  • Killed Offscreen: Ken Karsch and Tom Greenleaf are both found dead by Mort after he oversleeps the day of their meeting.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Watch the movie again after the Tomato in the Mirror ending, and you'll see it's all over the place.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Mort's closing monologue to the police sheriff.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Mort believes that Ted is using this trope, noting that the town Ted comes from has the word "Shooter" in it. It is revealed that Mort himself was making up parts of Shooter's personality from things in his daily life.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Mort lives in his isolated cabin with his dog Chico as his only companion and he's actually a schizophrenic maniac.
  • Mad Artist: Mort turns out to be a mad artist (of the 'mystery writer who acts out his own story' type) with Split Personality.
  • Meaningful Name: Shooter's Shoot Her.
    • Additionally, "mort" is French for "death", although this may have been unintentional as his full name is "Morton".
  • Messy Hair: Mort Rainey's hair was described in one review as looking as though it was combed with an eggbeater.
  • Metafiction: Not a particularly extreme example: it's a film (originally novella) about someone writing a short story.
    • More meta: Mort's split personality may be yet another reference to Stephen King's pen name "alter ego" Richard Bachman.
  • Moral Myopia: As far as Amy and Ted are concerned, cheating on Mort is perfectly alright, but him being hesitant to sign the divorce papers out of anger over being cheated on is totally unreasonable. Their annoyance with him becomes somewhat more justified when it turns out he pulled an (unloaded) gun on them, but they still act as though Mort is completely in the wrong for having been angry about it in the first place and have no regrets about the affair.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Mort is a successful author suffering from writer's block. As with many King works he is a loose stand-in for King himself.
  • Never My Fault: Amy and Ted claim that their affair was justified because Amy and Mort's marriage was dead and that he's in the wrong for being angry about it.
  • Not Proven: The sheriff and by extension the whole town. Everyone just knows Mort killed at least two people but without solid evidence, there's nothing to be done.
  • Once More, with Clarity: Shooter and Mort continually quote the closing lines of Shooter's original version of the story, the meaning of which only becomes apparent at the end. Additionally, Mort continually has flashbacks to when he discovered his wife was cheating on him; only the last of these revealed he threatened her and her boyfriend with a gun.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Mort and Ted's at the gas station.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: It's about an author who gets a knock on the door from a stranger who accuses him of plagiarizing a short story he wrote. Then it gets uglier when the stranger turns out to be quite capable of murder and makes clear he will do it to Mort after a few demonstrations. Then it gets weird when it is revealed that the stranger is Mort's split personality out to get rid of some people Mort hates and this plot point is quietly dropped.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Well, I guess you shouldn't HAVE FUCKED HIM THEN !!!"
  • Private Detective: Karsch is a private investigator who Mort hires to help scare off Shooter, though the two gradually shift gears to trying to collect enough evidence against him to get him arrested.
  • Psycho Ex-Husband: Mort himself at the end.
  • Real After All: In the novella, after Mort dies and Amy digs through his belongings, she finds Shooter's hat. When she returns there's a note inside from Shooter telling her that he's gone back to Mississippi. She wonders whether Shooter came to life in some form.
  • Red Herring: Ted, Amy's new lover..
  • Revised Ending: In-universe, Shooter's main objection to Rainey's supposedly having plagiarized his story is that he changed the ending, and wants him to change it back to his original ending. Of course, the latter is related to the former.
  • Room Full of Crazy: "SHOOTER ... SHOOTER ... SHOOTER ... SHOOT HER"
  • Scary Black Man: Ken promises to adopt this persona to intimidate Shooter.
  • Shout-Out: A possible one to Talking Heads - at one Mort drives to his wife's house and watches her and her new boyfriend leaving and getting into his car, thinking to himself "This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife."
  • Shovel Strike: Mort at the end kills both Ted and Amy by viciously smashing'em with a shovel.
  • Signature Headgear: Shooter's hat. It later becomes a Chekhov's Gun when it turns out it was actually an hat Mort bought some years ago and confirming that Shooter was actually Mort's Split Personality.
  • Smug Snake: Karsch is a rare non-villainous example. He's overly confident that he'll be able to scare off Shooter with ease and never really regards him as a threat, which proves to be his undoing.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the novella, Mort is gunned down when he tries to kill Amy. In the film, he succeeds in killing her (and Ted) and survives.
  • Split Personality: Mort. The story ends in Split-Personality Takeover and The Killer in Me.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: Shooter takes over Mort at the end to murder Ted and Amy, and claims Mort had destroyed his own personality so he wouldn’t have to live with the guilt. The ending leaves it ambiguous if Shooter was telling the truth, since Mort speaks without Shooter's trademark accent and acts unaware he committed the murders, but his conversation with the sheriff hints that it might be a case of Split-Personality Merge.
  • Standard Female Grab Area: The antagonist drags the conscious and struggling female lead along the ground, face-down, by one wrist. No, the villain is not particularly strong; she was just Too Dumb to Live.
  • The Stinger: Johnny Depp singing in a quite disturbing little voice "mama's little baby loves shortbread, shortbread..."
  • Stop Trick: Used in the beginning to make it appear that Johnny Depp's character has driven through a parking lot with the camera on the hood and then backed away from said camera in the same shot.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: John Shooter doesn't exist outside of Mort's imagination: Mort set Amy's house on fire, and killed Ken Karsch, Tom Greenleaf and Chico. The bruises on Mort's wrist where Shooter grabbed him are imaginary.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Mort is Shooter.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Amy walking into Mort's completely trashed house was pretty careless to start with.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Mountain Dew, Doritos and Jack Daniel's for Mort. By the end of the film he's taken up eating corn on the cob insteadbecause he's planted corn in the garden, fertilized by the corpses of Amy and Ted.
  • Tragic Villain: Mort was Driven to Madness by his wife's unjustified infidelity and before that the latter had a miscarriage. This added to the remorse to have actually stolen a story causes him to have a Writer's Block and turn into a dual-personality murderer.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Mort is stalked by the psychopathic John Shooter who accuses him of plagiarizing his book, and who attempts to frame him for several heinous crimes. In the climax, it is revealed that Mort has been driven to madness over the numerous traumas he has undergone prior to the film, such as his wife having a miscarriage, his guilt over plagiarizing a story and getting away with it, and his wife cheating on him, and that Shooter is a Split Personality formed from Mort's repressed darker impulses and traumas (though the novella implies Shooter was real).
    • It also applies to his ex-wife Amy. Amy claims that her and Mort's marriage was already dead, and he had become distant from her after she miscarried, which she claims justified her cheating on him. It’s heavily implied that said miscarriage traumatized Mort and severely fractured his mental state, and she just couldn’t be bothered to deal with it.
  • Wham Line: "There is no John Shooter"
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Mort Rainey becomes one when it turns out that John Shooter's crimes is of his own doing. Although Mort finally ends up killing his ex-wife and her lover, and his killings stopped.
  • Writer's Block: Mort Rainey suffers from this at the film's opening. By the end of the film it's resolved and he's in a creative streak.
  • Writing About Your Crime: Inverted. Mort murders two people and disposes of the bodies exactly as it happens in the story he had written.
  • Yandere: Mort himself towards Amy at the end.

"I know I can do it," Todd Downey said, helping himself to another ear of corn from the steaming bowl. "I'm sure that in time, every bit of her will be gone and her death will be a mystery... even to me."

Alternative Title(s): Secret Window Secret Garden