John Malkovich’s directorial debut presents terrorism without apparent goal

John Malkovich’s directorial debut presents terrorism without apparent goal

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Olympus Has Fallen has us thinking about better films about terrorism.

The Dancer Upstairs (2002)
When, not long after the fact, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was quoted as saying the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos,” the negative reaction was immediate—never mind his later contention that the artist in question was Lucifer. But terrorists choose their targets for symbolic value as well as the potential for mass bloodshed: It’s spectacle of a particularly depraved kind. 

John Malkovich’s directorial debut—and 11 years later, still his only feature-directing credit—is set in a place that, for all its real-world reference points, remains stubbornly symbolic. The obvious model for Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1996 novel is Peru’s Shining Path, but he isn’t interested in history so much as the primal instincts that move it. The terrorists who strike its unnamed Latin American country attach cryptic manifestoes to the corpses of dead dogs left in the street, but their motives never become clear, which only makes their actions more terrifying. Terror seems to be not a means to an end, but an end in itself: The shadowy leader Javier Bardem’s police detective tries to track down is so elusive, he might as well be a ghost in the machine. “Writing,” he says, “assumes a life of its own. It cannot answer questions.” The acts of terror speak for themselves, in their own foreign tongue.

The Dancer Upstairs was shot in English in spite of its setting, which gives the whole piece a disjointed air. But Malkovich, who inserted a clip from Costa-Gavras’ State Of Siege on a background TV, successfully staged the movie’s suspense without allowing it to overwhelm the more profound issues at stake. It’s thrilling, unsettling, and thought-provoking enough to make it hugely regrettable that Malkovich never stepped behind the camera again. 

Availability: Not streaming anywhere, but currently selling on good old-fashioned DVD for less than $6, and available for digital rental or purchase, too. 

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