REVIEW: Profile [2021]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 105 minutes
    Release Date: May 14th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Timur Bekmambetov
    Writer(s): Britt Poulton, Olga Kharina & Timur Bekmambetov / Anna Érelle (novel In the Skin of a Jihadist)

All I want is a Kalashnikov.


It was only a matter of time before Timur Bekmambetov took the plunge and directed his own entry within the cinematic style he coined (and anecdotally created) as “Screenlife.” Even if we forget how Brian De Palma played with YouTube-style vignettes in Redacted circa 2007, the short film Noah debuted at TIFF a year before Unfriended at Fantasia, and Nacho Vigalondo‘s Open Windows hit SXSW a few months before the latter too, the filmmaker’s claim always remained a bit far-fetched simply because the films unfolding on computer screens that he helped produce were never artistically his. So while Unfriended spawned a sequel and Searching hit box office glory, Bekmambetov continued pursuing the perfect vehicle that would finally allow him to put his own creative stamp on the gimmick.

“Screenlife” isn’t a genre. It’s a visual package that works when written well and doesn’t when it’s not just like time loops or body swaps or whatever. The filmmaker decides whether to wield it as a comedy, drama, thriller, or horror. To therefore have Bekmambetov make it his mission to somehow turn “Screenlife” into the future of cinematic language is hyperbolic at best and boring at worst since a gimmick is only ever as good as its utilization. There must be a reason why the action takes place on screens whether aesthetic, narrative, or otherwise because the stylistic choice itself isn’t captivating in its own right. You can’t just take any story and tell it in this format with the certainty that it becomes better as a result.

This is true of Anna Érelle‘s novel In the Skin of a Jihadist. Bekmambetov would obviously disagree considering he optioned the non-fiction account of a journalist infiltrating ISIS’s social media recruiting channels, but what exactly do we gain while watching his (co-written by Olga Kharina after a first draft by Britt Poulton) adaptation Profile as opposed to reading the source? I’d argue nothing. And the reason is simple: too much time elapses for us to believe the nuanced complexity of what happens through short video snippets adding up to less than an hour. Because while we can intellectualize what occurs as Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) blurs the line separating who she is from who she’s pretending to be, we cannot emotionally invest. Especially not when it isn’t live.

I’ll admit I was into it until this discovery. I could feel the tension as Amy scrambled at the last second to get everything ready for her first Skype call with ISIS general Abu Bilel (Shazad Latif). She’s obviously anxious and justifiably scared because this admitted murderer is about to see her face (hijab or not) and feasibly something in the background of her room that might give her real identity away. So she gets her editor (Christine Adams‘ Vick) to figure out a way to record and take precautions. She lets her fear bring prejudice to the surface upon realizing a Syrian-Brit (Amir Rahimzadeh‘s Lou) has been assigned as her technical support from the news agency. We literally don’t know what might happen. And then we do.

Well. Not the details. But we do find out that more calls are coming because the scene ends with the cursor scrolling down a list of folders to play the next relevant piece. This is no longer a high-stakes thriller, it’s a debriefing. Bekmambetov hasn’t recreated what Érelle went through for us to understand the danger. He’s recreated it so that he can pick and choose what’s relevant as a “greatest hits” compilation culled together after the fact. Why then must it be “Screenlife”? If we’re not getting context in-film, why not make a documentary with voice-over narration to let us know what these reenactments mean? Tell us how Amy is feeling. Tell us about her struggle to separate reality from fiction. Don’t assume it’s implicit.

Why? Because it’s not. The first “call” shows how Amy clearly separates her life (with Morgan Watkins‘ Matt as her boyfriend and Emma Cater‘s Kathy as her BFF) from her job. The conversation with Bilel is a con. She’s a broke investigative journalist winning over her mark by telling him what he wants to hear in order for him to involuntarily reveal the process ISIS uses to recruit European teens to their ranks. But then the next “call” is labeled to show how it took place days later with dynamics that have completely changed. Is it part of the ruse? Is she so comfortable with Bilel that we can’t tell she’s acting? Or has he been telling her what she wants to hear before ultimately turning the tables?

I’d like to say that this question lingers with Bekmambetov embracing the gray areas of what transpires, but that would be a lie. We know what’s happened and everything we witness corroborates it in an almost mechanically proficient way. Subtlety gets erased in an instant and we’re left watching as objective viewers rather than subjective voyeurs. The gimmick only succeeds if we’re able to live in the moment and fear what comes next right alongside the person we’re watching. But if her story is merely unfolding in a matter-of-fact way with the knowledge that we’re either working towards her indoctrination (and death) or her escape (and publishing), it’s all just a façade rendering that fear inert. Our attention isn’t about worry. It’s solely about detached curiosity.

I had the same problem with Searching, but at least that occurred in real-time. I didn’t see a list of folders telling me each chapter was a stepping-stone and therefore lacking authentic peril. Profile looks good and understands the technology’s capabilities (Érelle used these programs and thus detailed their strengths), but it’s all mime work. It’s “telling” rather than “showing” even though the format has been pretending that “showing” is baked into its DNA. And that’s not good enough when we’re asked to believe Amy’s life is falling apart before our eyes. If we can’t experience that descent ourselves (courtesy of chunks of days being excised for brevity), we’re forced to take it on faith. Or we can buy the book and make this one very expensive advertisement.


photography:
[1] Valene Kane stars as Amy in Timur Bekmambetov’s PROFILE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of BEZELEVS and Focus Features
[2] Valene Kane stars as Amy and Shazad Latif as Abu Bilel Al-Britani in Timur Bekmambetov’s PROFILE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of BEZELEVS and Focus Features
[3] Valene Kane stars as Amy in Timur Bekmambetov’s PROFILE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of BEZELEVS and Focus Features

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