Dir: David Koepp. US. 2004.

Johnny Depp is beloved among moviegoers for his outrageous screen characters whose exaggerated physical attributes have included wigs, facial tics and garish attire. In the tepid psychodrama Secret Window, based on a novella by Stephen King, Depp dons a frayed bath robe, big spectacles and a skate rat's bleached-out page boy hairstyle in an effort to capture a best-selling author's steady descent into madness after a deranged writer accuses him of plagiarism.

While Depp is worth a chuckle even in middling fare, audiences may strain to find potent thrills in this King-spawned studio clunker that's not as noxious as 2003's fecal-spiritual fiasco Dreamcatcher but still a distant pretender to that slim pantheon of memorable King movie adaptations. Columbia Pictures has wisely positioned Window in the afterglow following Depp's banner year of Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl and Once Upon A Time In Mexico. Its box office take should benefit from its star's populist ascendancy: it opened well with around $19m from 3,018 sites at the weekend, second to The Passion. Ancillary prospects are more encouraging on the basis of Depp's performance and the King source material.

Depp's Mort Rainey is a successful suspense writer stuck in a rut after catching his wife Amy (Maria Bello) cavorting with another man. While he awaits divorce papers Rainey holes up in his lakefront cabin in upstate New York where he grapples with writer's block and takes prolonged naps on the sofa until he's rudely interrupted by a psychotic Southerner named John Shooter (John Turturro), who accuses Rainey of stealing his short story.

Rainey threatens legal action and races to track down an old mystery magazine containing the short story in question, proof that the publication date of his story preceded Shooter's by two years.

But the increasingly sadistic Shooter, who orders Rainey to compose a better ending to his pilfered tale, remains two steps ahead of the game, unleashing a campaign of murder and destruction that leaves Rainey looking like the architect of his own mounting insanity.

An arsonist torches his wife's house to the ground. Rainey's lawyer and a key witness to Shooter's appearance in the lakefront town wind up bludgeoned to death, leaving Rainey to clean up the mess. Amy's lover Ted (Timothy Hutton) arrives upstate with the divorce papers Rainey has ignored for months.

Is the soon-to-be ex-husband the victim of an elaborate ploy by Ted, who's eager to claim Amy for himself' Is the scribe, like King himself, in possession of such a ribald imagination that his unquiet mind has created id-like projections that walk and talk as if real' Is Shooter a flesh-and-blood person or the desperate concoction of someone deep in the throes of writer's block'

These are only some of the questions probed by the gleefully cryptic Secret Window, which maintains its poker face even after the film's macabre did-he-or-didn't-he' conclusion.

Writer-director Koepp is well versed in protracted suspense thrillers featuring trapped protagonists, whether the confinement extends to physical environments (Apartment Zero, Jurassic Park and Panic Room) or more cerebral ones, like the atmospheric 1999 chiller Stir Of Echoes, whose tagline teased: "In every mind there is a door that has never been opened."

Secret Window, whose modus operandi could be a variation on those very words, examines confinement from the unreliable perspective of the blocked writer, imprisoned in both house and head, prone to erratic behaviour that Koepp, with Depp's aid, deftly translates into passable if not fleeting suspense.

Window revisits the isolated, rustic terrain of King's most popular writer's-life hatchet job, the psycho-shocker Misery, but where that novel and film built to an almost unrelenting crescendo of suspense, this one merely coasts along on dangling participles from past King works.

If Depp channelled the decadent aura of Keith Richards in his Oscar-nominated turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates, then the multifarious caricaturist this time riffs on late-period River Phoenix, caked in grunge accoutrements including dishevelled curtains of hair, septuagenarian cardigans and facial expressions that alternate between tortured and quizzical. It isn't until late in Secret Window that Depp erupts in his trademark cartoonish insanity, coughing up the amusing facial tics and skittish eccentricities that have served him well in everything from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas to Blow.

Depp's co-stars don't even attempt to steal his spotlight, though Turturro, with his sadistic riff on Forrest Gump, comes close. Bello gives good supporting actress after her wondrous turn as a grizzled cocktail waitress in The Cooler, but in the end she's given little to do but gloat and shriek on cue. Hutton delivers a rangier performance as a jealous and possessive lothario but since this is Depp's show, his welcome presence barely registers.

Secret Window mines a rocky terrain best summed up as "studio meta" in the way it tries to pass itself off as a quirky Kafkaesque nightmare but opts out of going full throttle with the surrealist mind bombs of Charlie Kaufman's best work. Like his Adaptation and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind scripts, Window examines the writing process from the perspective of a conflicted soul whose erratic mind has perhaps made him his own worst enemy - or best-selling author, as the case may be.

And while the concept of a blocked writer's fictional creations coming back to harass him for a better ending is an ingenious concept in theory, Window feels burdened by its studio origins. It knows it can't afford to travel too far out on a limb, and winds up feeling serviceable at best, until it collapses in baroque comic violence. Like last year's Paycheck, another studio meta that was better served in print form as pulp fiction, Secret Window seems mortified of subjecting its middle- and low-brow audience to too much depth (Depp') of thought.

Prod cos: Pariah Productions
US dist:
Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Exec prod:
Ezra Swerdlow
Gavin Polone
David Koepp
Fred Murphy
Prod des:
Howard Cummings
Jill Savitt
Philip Glass
Main cast:
Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S Dutton