Timur Bekmambetov may be known for his epic blockbusters, but the Ben-Hur and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter filmmaker is turning to more intimate means to tell stories these days. A passionate and vocal champion of the format he’s dubbed Screenlife, Bekmambetov has thrown his weight behind films presented entirely on computer screens and digital devices — a sometimes startlingly intimate form of filmmaking that embraces the fact that in the year 2018, most of us live as full a life online as we do in the physical world.
After producing two Unfriended films and the critically celebrated festival hit Searching, Bekmambetov tries his hand at directing Screenlife film of his own with the tense and engrossing if occasionally frustrating thriller Profile. Told in real time from the vantage point of digital devices, the film spins a narrative through Skype, Facebook, browsers and video files, following a British journalist who goes undercover online as a naive Muslim convert to infiltrate and report on ISIS recruiting techniques. One handsome jihadist and some weeks later, the lines between her real life and her haphazardly crafted persona start to get dangerously blurry.
Part of the problem is that her real life is so damn unglamorous. A freelance journalist struggling to find her big break, or just make rent for that matter, Amy (The Fall standout Valene Kane) is starting to feel the pressures of age. For one thing, she’s researching freezing her eggs — something we learn through a quickly glimpsed tab in her browser — and she’s desperate for the story that could make her career. Desperate to the point of danger, and though her actions are no doubt intentionally designed to make to make the audience nervous, they also conjure up a fair bit of ire with each new reckless, hastily researched action.
After pitching the story to her no-nonsense editor (Christine Adams), Amy cobbles together a faux Facebook profile as 19-year-old “Mellody,” which attracts the attention of charming ISIS recruiter Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, who’s magnetic in the role). It all happens impossibly fast, but the breathless process starts a pit of nerves brewing in your stomach, and those nerves keep on churning through each utterly unprepared click of Amy’s mouse. After a few quick YouTube tutorials on age-concealing makeup and Hijab-wrapping tips, Amy hops on Skype with Bilel, hurtling herself into a potentially deadly game of subterfuge. Bilel isn’t just handsome, he’s charming and disarming, communicating through cat gifs and smizing into his webcam like an Abercrombie model, and it’s not long before they’re calling each other “baby” and planning their marriage.
The film’s tension is underscored by the question of whether she’s playing him for the story or falling into his trap, her soft-spoken promises of devotion sounding a bit more truthful with each new call. Their emotional and romantic game of cat-and-mouse fuels the film and Bekmambetov invests thoroughly in their dynamic, allowing the tension to build through their interactions rather than harping on the obvious external threats. He also takes care to highlight her emotional state through her digital actions — not just through what we see on her video feed, but by the fluttering indecision of her cursor and the frantic typos in her chat. He sees our open windows as windows to the soul and uses every element of the screen at his disposal to step inside Amy’s mind.
Profile’s biggest trouble is getting around the fact that Amy is so sloppy and haphazard with her journalistic technique — especially considering the grounded, all too real nature of the film’s hook. The film is inspired by the real-life investigative journalism by Anna Erelle, but does little to honor the integrity of journalist. Amy dives into a life or death investigation with almost no research, allows Bilel to see details of where she lives, and flashes possibly damning documents without thinking. Perhaps it’s panic or nerves overriding her better judgment, but if you have any eye for privacy protocol, you’ll bristle at the casual disregard for safety. That anxiety-fuel may be intentional, but it’s also frustrating and poses a challenge for audience empathy.
Fortunately, those moments don’t cancel out the impact of Profile’s tense moments, and Bekmambetov makes good work of twisting your stomach into knots as Amy cascades down her rabbit hole of deceit. Considering Bekmambetov’s interest in the melodramatic elements, the film would benefit from a better sense of humor and a little less self-seriousness, but there’s no denying it conjures up some serious stress levels and proves once again that the Screenlife format isn’t just a gimmick, it’s an effective and unconventional cinematic method that allows you to step straight into the mind of the character and put you through the ringer right with them.