Secret Window (2004) Movie Plot & Ending, Explained: Secret Window (2004) is renowned screenwriter David Koepp’s (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible) third directorial venture. It’s an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1990 novella Secret Window, Secret Garden, starring Johnny Depp, John Turturo, and Maria Bello in the central roles. Stephen King has often used writers as his protagonists, highlighting their obsession and distress while embarking on the maddening journey of putting words into the paper. In a brief note by Stephen King for this particular novella, the author mentions he will stop cooking up stories with writers as characters. Nevertheless, Mr. King brought back a writer protagonist for his 1998 novel Bag of Bones, whose Mike Noonan is yet another brilliantly drawn writer character in the Stephen King Universe.

Secret Window might fall short of top-tier King stories, yet it remains an intense and profound character study that’s missing in Koepp’s adaptation and direction. Moreover, Johnny Depp – fresh from the success of playing Jack Sparrow – adds a bit of amusing oddness to the central character that doesn’t always work. Still, David Koepp’s Secret Window is a fairly engaging mystery thriller with a predictable twist and a few implausible turns.

Now, let’s delve into the dark incidents in the life of a depressed and lonely best-selling author. Spoilers ahead.

Secret Window (2004) Plot Explained: 

The Beginning of Mort Rainey’s Unraveling

Secret Window opens with an intense stare of Johnny Depp’s Mort Rainey. He is sitting inside his car. The gloomy color palette, the enclosed space, and the windshield wiper moving to and fro further highlight the character’s sense of unease. A voice from within implores, “Turn the car around and get the hell out of there.” He follows the voice and turns around. But he stops the car after a few seconds. Despite the loud protestations from the voice inside, Mort puts the car in reverse, and it’s revealed that he is moving towards a motel.

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He picks up a room key from the reception and enters a room at the far end of the motel. The flooding lights from the outside wake up a man and a woman sleeping in the bed. Mort screams at the woman as the camera moves out of the room and the bleak winter atmosphere to a sunny lakeside forest; a lone wooden house is nestled amidst the greenery. The shot slowly and steadily moves through the house before focusing on the mirror image of Mort Rainey lying on the couch. The mirror remains a recurrent visual motif in the narrative since it’s a tale of fractured identity.

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Mort Rainey looks more disheveled and haggard than when we first saw him. He is cloaked in the shabby and torn bathrobe and wakes up to a knock on the door. It’s been six months since he confronted his wife, Amy (Maria Bello), and her lover, Ted Milner (Timothy Hutton), in the motel room. He is at the final stage of his divorce from Amy and has moved to the summer house in the remote and rustic small town of Tashmore Lake. Mort has left their New York house to Amy, who is in a relationship with Ted.

Did Author Mort Rainey Plagiarize a Story?

With all these incidents and details weighing him down, Mort Rainey opens the door to find a tall stranger (John Turturro) with a Southern drawl curtly saying, “You stole my story.” It takes a few moments for Mort Rainey to gather his thoughts, but the man waves a manuscript and insists Mort has stolen his story. Mort scowls at the man’s plagiarism accusation and closes the door on him. The stranger leaves without causing a scene, but he has left the manuscript on the porch. Mort takes the manuscript, which is titled ‘Sowing Season’ by John Shooter. Sure that he has never heard such a name or a story title, Mort puts it in the trash and retreats to his couch.

Mort’s only companion at the cabin is Chico, an old dog. Later in the day, Mort is seen sitting and staring at the word processor. He has written nearly four lines for a story, which painfully reflects his confrontation with Amy. Mort lightheartedly speaks about the minor annoyances with Chico, who directs a reassuring and knowing glance at its human companion. Mort is particularly irked by the presence of his well-meaning housekeeper, Mrs. Garvey. She retrieves Shooter’s manuscript, thinking Mort had mistakenly thrown it into the trash.

Amy’s Secret Window and Secret Garden

Mort reads the first paragraph in the manuscript, which brings to mind a story he has indeed written. From the bookshelf, he takes his short story collection, ‘Everybody Drops the Dime,’ in which there’s a story titled ‘Secret Window.’ Apart from the name and a few other changes, the story is more or less the same. The gist of the story is a husband planning to kill his unfaithful wife and bury her in the little patch of garden near the house. The story pushes Mort to reflexively look at the first-floor window. It brings back a memory of Amy.

Amy moves a cabinet to find a window overlooking a small patch of plants. She calls it her ‘secret window’ and says she will put her secret garden there. As the memory fades, Mort’s anxiety grows, and he tries to light up a cigarette – a habit he has supposedly given up. But Mrs. Garvey interrupts him. Soon, Mort, tired of all the thoughts, returns to sleep, believing he didn’t steal the story. Mort wakes up to the phone ringing. It’s Amy on the other side, questioning if he is alright. He asks her if she remembers ‘Secret Window.’ She replies it’s not her favorite story. The conversation inevitably moves to Ted, which evokes a snarky retort from Mort, and the call abruptly ends with a goodbye.

How Can Mort Prove ‘Secret Window’ is His Story? 

Later, Mort walks into the woods, and John Shooter is waiting for him. Mort asks him when he wrote the story. While they are talking, a man – whom we later learn as Tom Greenleaf – passes them in a pickup and waves at Mort. Shooter says he wrote ‘Sowing Season’ in 1997. Mort confronts him, saying he wrote the story in late 1994 and published it in a magazine in June 1995. However, the short story collection came out after 1997. An enraged Shooter claims Mort is lying and asks him for proof.

When Mort says the magazine’s name, Shooter mildly intimidates him by wondering if he can find the magazine at his house in New York and ask his wife, Amy. Shooter gives him three days to get the magazine. If Mort is right, the man promises to leave him alone. Mort walks back home, disconnects the phone, and sleeps on the couch. He wakes up in the middle of the night after a nightmare. Mort finds that a window is open, and the lights on the outside are out. He gets out to investigate and finds Chico brutally killed with a screwdriver. There’s also Shooter’s message to show the proof in three days and warning him not to involve the police.

The Conflict Escalates

After burying his beloved dog, an unsettled Mort drives to the town to complain to the old sheriff, Dave (Len Cariou). The sheriff doesn’t take the threat seriously and is more preoccupied with cross-stitching, which is said to be good for arthritis. The sheriff even infuriatingly says, “Killing an animal isn’t like killing a man.” Subsequently, Mort goes to New York to hire a private detective, Ken (Charles Dutton), whom he has used in the past. The exchanges between Mort and Ken reveal that there have been incidents in the past involving obsessed readers. Ken also inquires if he really didn’t steal the story. Mort stands firm, and Ken agrees to help him. He assures Mort that he will drive to Tashmore Lake and look around for a couple of days.

Since Mort is in the city, he stops by Amy’s place, only to find her with Ted. He drives back to his cabin and finds Ken in his driveway. Ken says he has thoroughly checked the place, and there’s no immediate threat. Mort mentions Tom Greenleaf, the only other guy in the town who has seen Shooter. Ken says he will meet Shooter and make sure that he doesn’t disturb Mort anymore.

Secret Window (2004) Movie Explained
A still from David Koepp’s ‘Secret Window’ (2004)

But just as Ken leaves the cabin, Mort sees a reflection of someone running in the glass window. Gripped by fear, Mort slowly makes his way to his room on the first floor and finds a mirror reflection of someone standing in his bathroom. He storms into the bathroom, breaking the mirror. But Mort only finds a mouse. He takes the mouse, leaves it outside, and lights a cigarette. Unsurprisingly, Mort is greeted by Shooter, who taunts the writer again. Furthermore, Shooter asks Mort to fix the ruined ending of his story. Mort’s attempt to attack Shooter doesn’t go well, as the tall and strong guy easily overpowers Mort, now openly threatening to kill Amy.

The following morning, Mort connects his phone and instantly gets a call from Amy. She sounds distressed and reveals that someone has burned their house. Mort goes to New York and finds the house totally burnt and charred. The fireman confirms that it was an act of arson. To the detective at the scene, Mort privately shares details about Shooter. At the insurance company, Ted’s presence irks Mort, which creates an atmosphere of discomfort. Ted has a talk with Mort and demands he drop the irritable persona and give Amy some peace.

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Did Ted Hire John Shooter?

The way Ted talks provides a spark in Mort’s mind, making him question where Ted is from. Ted says he is from a small place called ‘Shooter’s Bay’ in Tennessee. That gradually leads Mort to come up with a theory. Back at the cabin, he calls Ken. Once Ken has heard about the arson, he says he called Mort’s agent to get a magazine copy, which will arrive the next day. Ken mentions that he talked to Tom Greenleaf, who he says is nervous to speak and claims he saw no one during his drive. Ken posits that Shooter might have threatened Tom.

Moreover, he thinks Shooter might have been hired by someone bearing a grudge against Mort. But Ken believes Shooter has gone out of control, and the one who hired him can’t call off the guy. At this point, Mort mentions Ted, and maybe Ted hired Shooter to intimidate him. Now Ken calls for a meeting the following day at nine with him, Mort, and Tom to confirm the presence of Shooter apart from the manuscript evidence. But Mort wakes up late after 10, fuzzy and disoriented. He couldn’t find his car keys. Mort finds Shooter’s fedora hat on his porch when he opens the door. Mort sees his truck running with the door open.

What Does Shooter Want from Mort Rainey?

Later, Mort gets to the place where he is supposed to meet Ken and Tom. But he doesn’t find both of them there. On his return, Mort sees Ted at a gas station. He decides to confront Ted. Ted is actually on his way to meet Mort to make him sign the divorce papers, which he has been stalling for months. But Mort blames everything on Ted, presuming that Shooter is Ted’s fault. Back at home, Mort receives a call from Shooter, asking him to go to the place where they met the other day. Mort runs to the isolated path and finds Tom’s pickup. A screwdriver is wedged deep into Tom’s skull, and a small axe soaked with blood lies on the passenger side. In the blood-splattered backseat sits Ken; his throat is slashed. Mort faints.

He wakes up a few hours later to the now-familiar voice of Shooter. When Mort says he will go to the police, Shooter suggests that he can simply disappear, and since the screwdriver and axe are from Mort’s tool shed, Mort will be the prime suspect. Shooter once again demands to change the ending of the story Mort stole. Mort hollers that he will get the magazine in the afternoon and prove it. After Shooter leaves, Mort pushes the pickup into the nearby water-filled stone quarry since he also believes the murders will be tied to him.

At the cabin, Mort receives a call from Amy, who expresses her concern for him. She talks about losing their baby and further mentions how Mort has been emotionally unavailable long before Amy’s affair with Ted. She brings up the subject of the divorce papers. The conversation turns nasty, and Mort abruptly cuts the call. Amy decides to immediately visit Mort at his cabin and make him sign the papers. She doesn’t want to prolong these festering bitter feelings between them. Ted volunteers to accompany her, but Amy asks him to stay put since Ted’s presence will only enrage Mort.

Secret Window (2004) Movie Ending Explained:

Who Is John Shooter?

Meanwhile, Mort gets to the post office and gets a copy of the magazine. He rushes back to the cabin and opens the parcel. To his dismay, he finds the parcel open, and the few pages of his short story in the magazine are torn up. Subsequently, Mort wears Shooter’s hat and stands in front of the mirror. He begins having a conversation with the voice inside him. The voice beseeches him to call the police before he does more damage. Eventually, the voice firmly declares, “There is no John Shooter.”

What the sane voice, or the conscience, proposes deeply unsettles Mort, leading him to confront the dark space between reality and the imagined. Mort throws a vase at the plastered wall, which causes a small crack. Then, the crack keeps expanding and runs throughout the cabin. It’s a manifestation of Mort’s reality breaking down to reveal that he hasn’t always been the wide-eyed observer. Mort looks at the mirror and sees the reflection of the back of his dead. The surreal shot signifies Mort’s gaze into the unknown side of him. Subsequently, he hears and sees John Shooter. It becomes clear that Shooter is a persona the writer Mort created long back. The hat, the Southern identity, and his violent streak are things Mort bestowed upon this imagined character.

Under extreme duress, Mort Rainey has allowed John Shooter to take over himself and commit the deeds Mort wouldn’t have done. He has killed the dog, burnt the house, and has also killed Tom and Ken. Now Mort has totally lost the grip on reality and embraces Shooter’s logic of fixing the story’s ending, i.e., to kill Amy and bury her in the secret garden. Just as the homicidal Mort gets this realization, Amy arrives at the cabin.

Amy gets inside the house, only to find the place ransacked, and Mort is nowhere to be found. Like Wendy stumbling upon Jack Torrance’s madness in The Shining, Amy is distressed to see that Mort has carved the name ‘Shooter’ all over the place. Finally, she sees Mort hiding behind a door, wearing the hat and looking menacing. As the door closes, it says, “Shoot Her.” When Mort tries to attack Amy with a scissor, she runs out of the cabin and gets into the car. But he calmly throws a small rock into the car and casually drags her out. Amy emphasizes that he is Mort Rainey, but the Shooter persona has wholly taken over him. Just as he is about to hit Amy with a shovel, Ted also reaches there.

Did Mort Change the Ending of ‘Secret Window’?

Mort brutally kills both of them with a shovel and, as it says in the story, buries them in the garden patch. The epilogue jumps to a few weeks or months after Amy and Ted’s alleged disappearance. Mort Rainey gets into a diner in the town, where everyone is unnerved by his presence. Later, the sheriff pays him a visit to the cabin. The sheriff finds the door open, lots of corn in the kitchen, and Mort is busy writing. Sheriff Dave assures that Mort will be caught once the bodies are found, and in the meantime, it would be best if Mort stays away from the town.

Secret Window (2004) ends with Mort’s story’s final words: “‘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.” As these words are heard, we see the camera gliding out of the secret window and into the garden full of corn crops. We are left with the image of Mort biting into an ear of corn and the crunching sound.

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It’s a powerful and horrifying image to end the thriller. Yet, digging a little into the narrative details, it also seems implausible. Considering the media spotlight after Amy’s disappearance, all it would take for the New York detectives to nab Mort Rainey is if someone brought their attention to the author’s short story. And, of course, the ‘Mort-is-Shooter’ twist is apparent long before it’s revealed. When Stephen King wrote the novella in 1990, dissociative identity disorder (or split personality) might have been a fascinating trope. But by now, and even at the time of the movie’s release, it has become an overused element in psychological thrillers. Nevertheless, Secret Window is worth watching for its intriguing premise with robust performances from Turturro and Depp.

Secret Window (2004) Trailer

Secret Window (2004) Movie External Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
Secret Window (2004) Movie Cast: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles Dutton, and Len Cariou.

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