Let’s face it: we’re still very much obsessed with our screens. We rely on them rather frequently for the manner of personal communication. For daily tasks, and in minor examples, for personal betterment. But there’s a little more we may not know, aspects to social interaction beyond the typical. Something deeper than just the average chitchat. A wild, flagellating pulse of energy Timur Bekmambetov has no trouble rolling with, in his newest effort Profile.
It’s really a story that could only be told effectively in the ScreenLife format he so rightly championed from its wild origins in 2014’s Unfriended. It would later catch my personal attention so vividly on a large screening in 2018’s Searching, a film he presided over as producer. All while he was slowly rolling out his own equivalent to festival crowds, only for it to sit on the shelf mysteriously long enough to just miss the lip of the trend. The gimmickry fights to stay fresh, the actual plot wrapped around its screen-capture charm growing more convoluted. The subject matter in play is all very real, inspired by real accounts addressed in a bestselling novel by French journalist Anna Érelle. We flashback to 2014, ISIS has become a reckoning force beyond any control. The kind of organization with an outreach program equaling that of Girl Scouts. It seems all very simple, innocuous. Retaliators making friends on Facebook, building friendships which eventually push into unwilling recruitment tactics.
Enter Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane), a roving investigative journalist looking for her next big story and juggling a strained work-life balance between hubby Matt (Morgan Watkins) and boss Vick (Christine Adams). In her pursuits to uncover that veil of secrecy under alias Melody Nelson, she establishes herself immediately liking a few videos and memes before meeting Bilel (Shazad Latif), an experienced fighter leading an army around strife-torn Syria. The two founder a blooming friendship into a half-hearted affair, the duo baring their souls in a series of intimate conversations over the course of nearly a month (it was all filmed in nine days). She goes deep about loose fragments of her family life; he revels in past triumphs on the battlefield. It’s not the cleverest dynamic, but the chemistry they share fares appropriately.
The concept of biting off more than one could chew is propelled into overdrive. While this unheeding blooms, so too does the blurring of a line held firm by reality, or a lack thereof. Third-party voices of reason like Vick, Matt, and loyal Muslim-born IT assistant Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh) appear to fail her reasoning. The latter will give Amy certain social cues to keep the activity quick and non-committal; even that slips through the cracks, as she gets just a bit too involved. Any real-world fact is further embellished by melodramatic fiction. What could’ve been as scathing as a long-form Dateline report, is as sappy as a least serious cinematic iteration of Romeo and Juliet. They fall in love, stopping short of being self-aware.
Bekmambetov, with co-writers Britt Poulton (Them That Follow) and Olga Kharina (Yolki 3) skate that line, overworking to narrowly stay balanced. Around the third act, Profile pulls itself together just enough to be equally realistic and tender. Until then, I mightn’t have been all that convinced this drama could conduct itself in a manner tense and tawdry. Weird, when considering this same problem didn’t happen with Searching. Which was as focused, polished experimental cinema as one could be. Viewing Profile from a computer screen, the dynamic does take a large, unwelcome swing. The novelty of peering into one’s desktop, violating many privacy laws in the process, that alone bore a certain irony. The kind that leaves a person slightly sick to their stomach at the end, as it should.
When it does manage to reel itself in, we do get plenty to be enthralled, and anxious toward. Whether it’s something simple as peering in as one checks their Skype connection while dodging multiple iPhone messages, or posting to the wrong account, or rooting for the heroine to play it smart at every turn (good luck on that). Bekmambetov remains a smart enough director to lay his chips down in the right places, on the right things. He’s got a firm hand on the action, but a somewhat goofy sensibility holds him back from sticking the landing.
The leads are unfazed, despite the questionable changes in tone. Kane and Latif make for wild sparks, even if they’re never in the same room. Constrained as it appears, they still cut through the fluff around their script fangs bared. It does leave this writer pining for whether a real-world equivalent would’ve elicited a deeper emotional bond. Already, the film knows when to show a sense of profundity, especially as its realism ebbs. But there’s no question, an equally traditional approach ditching the contrivance of desktop clutter would’ve aided the relationship aspect.
Nevertheless, even when it stumbles, Bekmambetov with editor Andrey Shugaev (to a slightly greater extent) keep the efforts moving without stopping. Profile lags greatly, like the spinning wheel one must contend with as a viewing screen buffers. Had it not rolled with those punches, I’d have been speaking in a less positive tone here. Online friendships are dangerous no matter the circumstance, romantic entanglement just as much. This low-budget triad perhaps succeeds best by speaking to the toxicity of power hidden under a convincing façade. Bilel is guilty of that without having to give a second thought. Amy’s the pawn, trying to stay half a step ahead. They’re impossibly perfect for each other, the story around them just isn’t. Though in an era where absurdist tales of technology once thought to be only scripted for fans of The Twilight Zone are increasingly blending into the fabric of reality, it’s empathic (and intellectual) enough to be a reminder to never let one’s guard down. Bottom line: please be careful.
Profile is currently playing in theaters nationwide, VOD release to follow in early June; rated R for language throughout and some disturbing images; 105 minutes.