Life Is Not What It Seems in Post-WWII Thriller ‘The Secrets We Keep’

The American dream isn’t always what it seems, and that is the case for Maja (Noomi Rapace), a native of Romania who finds herself living in an idyllic small town post-World War II with her American husband Lewis (Chris Messina), and their son Patrick in “The Secrets We Keep,” a rich thriller set in 1959. On the surface she fits in, but inwardly she is dealing with her haunted past, one that catches up with her when she spots a local man, Thomas (Joel Kinnaman), whom she is convinced is the ex-Nazi responsible for not only committing a heinous act against her, but also for the murder of her sister. She soon finds herself risking the cozy life she has built in order to seek revenge.

We come to learn that Maja spent time in a concentration camp during the war, although she is not Jewish, but a member of another persecuted group, the Romani, or gypsies. Her husband, a kindly doctor whom she met in Greece after the war, is ignorant of this part of his wife’s past. It is during an ordinary afternoon during which she is enjoying a picnic with her son that she spots Thomas, and it is as if she has seen a ghost. Rapace is brilliant in the ensuing sequence in which we see her spy on the man before she ends up kidnapping him. Although she speaks no words, her torment is clear as she debates her next steps. She could easily kill him — she already dug a grave — but what she really needs from him requires him to be alive.

Determined to get a confession, Maja ties the man up in her basement. He adamantly denies being the Nazi she remembers as Karl, insisting that he is Thomas, a Swiss citizen who worked a desk job during the war. Like her, he is now married to an American, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and is a parent. Despite his protests, she proceeds to torture the man, promising only to let him go if he confesses to her rape and the murder of her sister. As brutal as she is to him, harrowing flashbacks show her being subjected to worse.

In real life Rapace and Kinnaman have been close friends since they were both high schoolers in their native Sweden. Director Yuval Adler talked to Entertainment Voice about how their relationship actually helped here. “There were a lot of scenes that were very violent between them, emotionally, and it’s always good when people have a past… You can have disagreements, you can have clashes, because there’s a foundation that will hold it together, you’re sure of it. That helps. It enables you to have creative disagreements that you need to have.”

The situation becomes even more complicated after Maja confesses to Lewis not only the full details of her tortured past, but also the fact that she is holding the man whom she is convinced is responsible for her greatest miseries in their home. Lewis, who never saw action in the war and has been a law-abiding citizen up until this point, makes the gallant decision to do what he has to do to protect his wife. The close calls the couple endure amplify the already tense atmosphere, as loud noises from inside the house attract the attention of neighbors, not to mention little Patrick.

“I loved playing my character because of the arc that was laid out,” Messina revealed to EV. “He’d been in this kind of perfect world. He’s a doctor, and they have a kid and they’re living this picket fence, fifties life, and everything’s turned up on its head. I enjoyed mapping that out. Normally, I get to play the nice guy who doesn’t get as caught up in the darkness, and in this I got to do that, so I really embraced it. It’s all in the script, like a piece of music to follow.”

Adler worked closely with Rapace, who also served as a producer, to revise Ryan Covington’s screenplay. Together, the pair created a fascinating character out of Maja, a woman with PTSD who resorts to drastic measures in order to find closure. While her husband and the audience waver back and forth where Thomas is concerned, she is steadfast in her belief that he is the man who committed those atrocities on the other side of the world 15 years ago.

Adler discussed working with Rapace before filming and how she injected some of herself into Maja. “She’s very connected to [the Romani] culture, to these people, and she has some personal family connections… We wanted to explore that. And also the issue of PTSD, we talked about it, and then we did a lot of research… These two things we tried to be very honest and true about.

Be forewarned, “The Secrets We Keep” is not for the squeamish. In addition to the bloody torture we see Maja inflict on Thomas, the flashbacks of her own abuse are not easy to watch. But it’s not all exploitation, as this is a high-stakes thriller that keeps the viewer guessing, and the best scenes are the ones in which two characters have a dialogue. Maja seems convinced that Thomas is Karl, but she still goes to his home searching for clues. She befriends Rachel, a worried wife and mother that she seems to connect with. Seimetz, like the other three, gives a solid performance as this housewife who may or may not know more than she lets on. Just like in real life, the characters seem to want to live in a world in which the heroes and villains can be easily separated, but the truth is often more complicated.

“With Rachel, she’s not ready to face the secrets, and she is willing to live in a state of denial that is, in my opinion, quite unhealthy, but at the same time, she knows for herself that she’s not willing to face it quite yet,” explained Seimetz. “She knows there’s a darkness there, but she’s also naive [regarding] her new friendship, which she direly needs, she’s naive to the fact of what’s happening behind the scenes. I liked that interplay of the secrets that are being pitted against everyone in the movie.”

When all is said and done, we see the characters attempt to assimilate back into the American dream, but after all that has transpired, could a return to normalcy ever be possible?

“No,” answered Messina without hesitation. “That’s what’s really interesting about the movie, the idea of revenge and healing, and the cycle of revenge. I don’t even know if they’ll end up staying together, this couple.”

 “The Secrets We Keep” releases Sept. 16 in theaters and Oct. 16 on VOD.