Note: The writer of this review watched Profile on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
As a director, Timur Bekmambetov has made a career out of big-budget knockoffs, from the Russian blockbusting of Night Watch and Day Watch to the prepackaged attitude of his American movies, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (He has also directed several installments in Russia’s most successful live-action film franchise, a series of holiday-themed comedies unreleased in the U.S.) As a producer, though, Bekmambetov is more innovative. He’s a low-key pioneer, running thriller plots on a new operating system with his so-called “Screenlife” movies.
These projects, like Unfriended and Searching, tell their stories entirely through computer screens, an extension of the first-person effect seen in found-footage horror. Watching a missing-persons case or a vengeful ghost story unfold through streaming video, chat boxes, and search results isn’t necessarily a more “realistic” window into genre filmmaking; like found footage, it requires different forms of contrivance in pursuit of a particular effect. But the surprisingly successful technique has a way of teasing out subtleties of behavior not available to traditional narrative, and immersing audiences in familiar online habits, on a much larger screen, before jolting them into unease.
That is, until now. Bekmambetov finally takes the helm himself for Profile, the latest Screenlife experiment. In this case, “latest” is a bit of a misnomer; the movie was completed in 2018, and is only now seeing U.S. release, three years after its festival debut. Though Bekmambetov has made his big-studio career on violent, winking spectacle, Profile is closer to the grounded Searching than the grimmer, gorier Unfriended: Dark Web. It’s even based on a nonfiction book, In The Skin Of A Jihadist, about a French journalist who goes undercover to investigate ISIS recruitment.
In the movie version, Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) is a desperate freelancer, who as the movie begins is already comically behind on an assignment to pose as a recent convert to Islam with an interest in radicalism to learn how real young women are drawn into terror cells. (She doesn’t exactly Google “catfish terrorist how” when her editor checks in about the status of the piece, but it’s close.) We see her hastily construct a Facebook profile and, through her likes and follows, quickly attract the attention of Bilel (Shazad Latif), an ISIS leader. Though he’s in Syria and she’s in London, he becomes long-distance enamored of her through Skype (Zoom is not yet the vidchat of choice; the movie is set in 2014, around when the book takes place). As Vick (Christine Adams), Amy’s editor, dangles a staff job in front of her cash-poor writer, Amy becomes more obsessed with taking her deception further. At first, she’s blowing deadlines because her story is rushed and half-formed; eventually, she’s blowing past them because her ambition convinces her she can go bigger.
Is she sticking with the story because she’s also becoming obsessed with Bilel himself? The movie backs off from really exploring that question in any detail—and because the screen time technique is so intimate, it’s as if the audience is watching the movie realize its limitations in real time. Maybe a journalist’s experiences and psychology are too complicated and daunting to be condensed into an easily scannable first-person thriller. Whatever the reason, this is the first Bekmambetov Screenlife production to come across as a jumble of digital fakery. Amy’s relationships beyond her job are simple yet entirely unconvincing, with no hint of a genuine world outside the chat windows. The nuts and bolts of her job aren’t any better; editorial discussions with Vick are urgently stilted and unprofessional, while her online research is half-assed (and not very interesting). And when this overtaxed journo starts to feel lost in her story, she takes the time to briefly cue up “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies. (In the words of Frank Black: Stop.)
This is all supposed to be background texture behind the real story: Amy’s lingering look into the world of violent extremism, and her dangerously intense faked relationship with Bilel (who, of course, is engaging in plenty of manipulation of his own). To the extent that Profile scares up some real intensity in its sea of Skype calls and Facebook messaging, this is where it happens; Kane and Latif do their best to tap back into the believability that must have existed on the fact-based book pages. There’s a sense, however brief, that Amy is dabbling in something truly dangerous—and that this danger is only slightly more difficult to access than delivery from Seamless.
However, Bekmambetov fails to build on that unease, and both characters ultimately stagnate, clacking the same buttons over and over. This is the movie’s unlikely common ground with Bekmambetov in fantasy-blockbuster mode: Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had trouble building tension, too, mounting bloody special-effects sequences with meaningless outcomes. No matter where he goes, even when he’s working in a subgenre he helped build, Bekmambetov loses himself in the pixels.