Up to now, most critics have been content to write off Timur Bekmambetov’s ScreenLife as little more than a gimmick for schlocky genre movies, the 2010s’ found-footage. And, look, I get why one would be inclined to scoff; on paper, just the idea of a movie that is filmed from and takes place entirely within the confines of a desktop screen, it really does feel like the latest movie personification of “how do you do, fellow kids?”
But I genuinely feel like there’s a goldmine in the conceit, a way to update old genres and themes for a new generation raised on screens and the incredible infinite possibilities of the Internet in a way that feels excitingly current without having to demonise the technology in the process. I know that I am not alone in this, one of my friends who took the leap my anxious ass could not by seeing the Unfriended movies has also championed the potential of ScreenLife, and it’s why Aneesh Chaganty’s otherwise celebrated Searching collapsed for me in its stupid final 20 minutes that took a sledgehammer to the promise of its form.
Well, “if you want something done right, best to do it yourself” as the old saying goes and one that Bekmambetov seems to have taken to heart. Leave it to the form’s biggest champion, the director who wants to only make movies using this format in future, to finally realise its potential with his own stab at it, Profile. Updating undercover journalist thrillers for the heady days of 2014, we follow struggling British journalist Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane whom you know as the Irish member of the cast of the The Fall with more charisma and screen presence than an ironing board draped in a pile of soggy bedsheets) as she sets about working up the story that may get her enough money to not constantly be overdue on her rent.
Inspired by a viral news story about a young YouTube personality that converted to Islam, was recruited by online ISIS agents, made the trip to Syria and was stoned to death once she tried to escape, Amy hopes to make contact with one of these recruiters in order to find out how they do it as well. Her editor, Vick (Christine Adams), tentatively commissions the piece and we’re off to the races. Amy makes a secret alt-Facebook profile and within literal minutes of getting started, she’s hooked a live one, former British citizen Bilal (Sharzad Latif).
Bekmambetov, as veterans of prior films like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter can attest (they’re guilty pleasures of mine), is not a filmmaker who’s particularly comfortable in or adept at subtle storytelling, so Profile is fit to bursting with big emotions, crazy twists, characters acting recklessly, and even a few jump scares. A nuanced take on the issues, this ain’t, and yet, by virtue of the ScreenLife conceit, it also kind of is.
Profile happily indulges in all of the tropes and standbys of the undercover-journalist subgenre, the film’s main dramatic tension coming from the question of how much Amy is acting falling for Bilal or whether she maybe is actually falling for Bilal, without sacrificing any of the immediate tension from having the action be confined to screens separated from one another by thousands of miles. If anything, it makes things even more uncomfortable, since Bilal happily brags about all the many people he’s murdered and thirstily throws himself at Amy but also messages in text-speak, GIFs, and cat-based selfies like any other non-terrorist living in the year 2014. Combined with Latif’s extremely charming performance and elements of his backstory pertaining to racial discrimination, he becomes a worryingly disarming presence.
Which, of course, is the point. Men like Bilal weaponize empathy and sincerity to prey upon vulnerable women every day and, whilst the Internet may have made it easier for them to do so, it’s not something exclusive to the new technologies, much like it not being behaviour exclusive to ISIS recruiters. What Searching got wrong in its last act was how it centred the big reveal around an explicit finger-wagging “this never would have happened if it weren’t for the Internet” moralising the rest of the film had only implied (and which retroactively came to the surface after that reveal kicked in), but Profile never does that.
Facebook, Skype, webcams, Google Maps, these are intrinsic parts of the story on a mechanical basis but they’re not intrinsic to the film’s thematic parts. Amy’s f*ck-ups on the job aren’t due to scary boogeymen knowing just the right hack to make or the lack of privacy online, they’re because her life is a complete mess, she’s getting too attached to the story and Bilal, she’s somewhat prejudiced herself – initially trying and failing to get her tech support, Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), thrown off of the project because his mum’s Syrian and Amy thinks they all know each other – and all of these factors causing the lines between her real and fake identities to blur.
Bekmambetov also cheats with the conceit a lot less than Chaganty did with Searching. There’s no tightly-synced score backing proceedings, he only uses in-window zooms on brief Facebook Messenger exchanges but otherwise leaves the screen alone. Resultantly, his commitment to visualising the cluttered chaos of one’s desktop is much more truthful and fits this kind of thriller like a glove – Amy, being a journalist, is forever juggling note-taking, two or three Skype conversations at once, running background music, searching up supplemental information when a lead makes itself available, or being constantly reminded of other events/overdue rent/missed calls and messages at the worst possible times. The constant busyness induces an extra sense of anxiety that’s not only a dose of reality for the experience of Millennial freelancing writers living in city apartments they can’t afford in a film as high-strung as this, but surprisingly cinematic in its effect on the tension.
I fully admit that there will be some people who find Profile to be absolute nonsense that’s only made more ridiculous by the ScreenLife format. But I do genuinely believe that Profile hits on something with the concept, Bekmambetov successfully updating old tropes to fit new technologies and adding a certain urgency in the process. Once the film concludes, a title card announces that it was based on a true story – specifically, French journalist Anna Erelle’s book, In the Skin of a Jihadist – which can read like a hilarious joke given the extremely loose handling of the truth Bekmambetov displays throughout Profile. But I actually found it to be the perfect grace note.
Laugh all you want, but the world has moved online now and it’s fundamentally changed how we approach and experience our own lives, bringing us all so close that we can live under a genuine threat of assassination or experience a sincere moment of extreme vulnerability in a connection made from multiple continents away without even having to step outside the front door. But although it has simplified and empowered the process, it’s not wholly the Internet’s fault. It’s not new, it’s human nature, but now we’re going to experience it in the middle of our Facebook feed.
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