THE STORY – An undercover British journalist risks her life by infiltrating militant extremist groups online.
THE CAST – Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh & Morgan Watkins
THE TEAM – Timur Bekmambetov (Director/Writer), Britt Poulton & Olga Kharina (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Considering how much of modern life is lived online, it’s a bit surprising that the “screen life” film format hasn’t really taken off outside of the thriller genre. Sure, there’s that one episode of the Emmy-winning sitcom “Modern Family,” but as far as films go, everything from “Unfriended” to “Searching” to “Spree” could be broadly classified as some type of thriller. It wasn’t until this year that this format became something else, with COVID-era films like Natalie Morales’s “Language Lessons” using video chat conversations to tell a more slow-paced, mystery-free story. You might think at first glance that Timur Bekmambetov’s “Profile” was one of these COVID-era films, using the format as a solution to the problem of actors being unable to be in the same room as each other, let alone camera operators and lighting technicians. But “Profile” actually premiered at the Berlinale in 2018 and sat on the shelf for three years before being released to the general public. Why the wait? Who knows, but it’s finally here to fray your nerves and tie your stomach in knots.
Based on the non-fiction book “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by French journalist Anna Erelle, the film follows intrepid British freelance journalist Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) on her quest to expose how young European women are being recruited by ISIS and eventually brought to the middle east. Almost immediately after creating a fake Facebook profile of a new convert to Islam named Melody Nelson, she is contacted by Bilel (Shazad Latif), an ISIS fighter in Syria who has an Instagram profile called “ISISCATS” and who is very eager to talk with her, share some propaganda and cat gifs, and marry her. In desperate need of fast money and with the prospect of full-time employment being dangled over her head, Amy pushes her relationship with Bilel further and faster than is probably safe. She soon enough gets so caught up in the role she’s playing that she finds herself possibly falling for Bilel, to the point where she prioritizes him over her best friend, her boyfriend, her boss, and the IT guy helping her record her video chats with Bilel.
The film’s narrative is told on a computer of unknown origin through a series of Amy’s screen recordings helpfully sorted into folders labeled by the day of the project. Through a combination of fast-forwards and skipping days, the film barrels through time at a disarming rate. Everything moves very fast, but because we are so used to speedily switching between windows and typing on our own computers, it never feels overwhelming. The speed increases the sense of urgency, and Bekmambetov uses the desktop format to cleverly give us Amy’s backstory without ever getting bogged down in expository dialogue. Right from the first frame, it is clear that we are in good hands, with a well-composed, highly relatable sequence of Amy creating her new fake Facebook profile. How Amy uses her desktop – the windows she keeps open in the background, how she switches between views, what she searches for, tell us everything we need to know about her character, and every little detail is used in a sly way to tell us more than one thing at once (even the on-the-nose music cues feel like a comment on her state of mind). More than that, the desktop is used to keep us constantly on edge: The constant pile-up of browser tabs, windows, alerts, notifications, etc. make you tense enough on their own but combined with Bekmambetov’s knack for pacing and Kane’s effective, increasingly desperate performance, “Profile” winds you up so effectively that the next time your phone dings, you’ll reflexively jump out of your skin.
As for the film’s wobbly politics, well… it’s an exploitation thriller. Criminally offensive racial stereotypes are part and parcel of the genre, and Bekmambetov knows from genre tropes. Latif is so charismatic that it’s easy to see why a woman would be attracted to Bilel, even with his gun-toting love of violence and light misogynism. The film even gives him a backstory so that Bilel and Amy become sort of sick mirror images of each other, twin stories of how radicalization happens in the modern world. The constant images of Middle Eastern violence are a stark reminder of the fate that could await Amy should she be found out, and Kane is a strong enough performer that there is always just enough uncertainty as to whether Amy is being led by personal desperation to get her story or by an actual connection with Bilel. For a cheap exploitation thriller, it’s a pretty damn organic one, using real-world danger to raise the stakes of the story’s already pretty dangerous game. But the biggest key to the film’s success is that creeping around the edges of the exploitation thriller is a sly comment on our increasingly digital lives – the careful curation of an alternate life via online profiles, how a fantasy life can bleed over into and eventually overtake a real-life, how talking with a stranger enough times over video chat can create a form of intimacy that just might eclipse the intimacy of real-life relationships…it’s almost as though “Profile” was waiting for the moment when we were all the most vulnerable to strike. That moment when we’re just getting ready to come back into the real world after a year spent alone with our computers when the lies – big and small – that we’ve told online to keep ourselves alive could come back to haunt us at any moment. It’s a devious move, one that feels just right for a film this diabolically slick and well-crafted.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – It makes the most of the screen life format to bring a deeper commentary about modern life to its scuzzy exploitation thriller story. The lead performances are stellar.
THE BAD – An exploitation thriller about ISIS fighters recruiting disaffected European women to join their ranks, potentially as sex slaves, feels a bit misguided at best.
THE OSCARS – None