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Non-Review Review: Profile

Profile is the latest entry in the so-called “Screen Life” series, produced by Timur Bekmambetov. It is also notable as the first entry in the series to be directed by Bekmambetov himself.

The “Screen Life” series is effectively a set of heightened genre movies that unfold through the screen of a laptop, narratives that unfold through chat boxes, Skype chats, playlists and file transfers. It’s an innovative and experimental approach to storytelling. While the results – Unfriended, Searching… and Unfriended: Dark Web – have varied in quality, the hook has always been fascinating. So much of modern life is navigated through screens that it is fascinating to see movies try to reflect that. Indeed, there’s an argument that movies like Unfriended play better on computer screens than they do in theatres or on televisions.

Translating the story to screen.

Profile adheres to the cinematic conventions of these sorts of stories, but it feels unnecessarily constrained in other ways. Each of the three previous films has been a genre exercise told through a computer screen. Unfriended and Dark Web are teenage horror movies, while Searching… is a delightfully schlocky nineties thriller reimagined through a web camera. In contrast, the subject matter of Profile is decidedly weighter. The film is based on the non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Ereklle, looking at online recruitment of young British girls by Islamic extremists.

This is an appreciably more grounded and more serious piece of subject matter than something like Unfriended or Searching…, and it’s interesting to see this cinematic language applied to this subject matter. After all, this is a digitally native story and a tale about the process of mediating the world through computer screens. However, Profiles suffers slightly from the need to frame this subject matter not through the lens of a web camera, but through the prism of genre, to transform something very real and very threatening into a heightened cartoonish thriller.

A new Skype of thriller…

The basic plot of Profile follows a young journalist named Amy Whittaker, who pitches an article to her editor on the recruitment of young British girls by Islamic militants in Syria. Whittaker makes a connection with a fighter who goes by the alias of Bilel, who begins charismatically grooming her over social media and communications software, using familiar tricks like citing his love of adorable kittens and his passion for home cooking. He tempts her with the spoils and the riches that he can offer, the promise of a potential dowry, and the lure of purpose and freedom.

Profile is most interesting in its portrayal of this dynamic, which is obviously something taken directly from accounts of these seductions. Profile occasionally pauses its action to cut to Amy researching and reading up on these techniques, demonstrating rather directly and overtly to the audience that Bilel’s charm is both performative and rehearsed. In some ways, this is a drama perfectly suited to the online age. Bilel is arguably just doing the most extreme version of something that most people do on social media, manifesting a curated and idealised version of his life and projecting it out into the world.

Do not adjust your… laptop, I guess?

Profile works best in its smaller moments, when it is willing to luxuriate in the weirdness of this experience – in the reach of a sinister organisation half-way around the world into the daily lives of seemingly ordinary people living mundane lives. There’s a small recurring subplot about Amy’s own life in contemporary London, in her own struggles to make ends meet and her own urge to find a place in a world that seems antagonistic to her. One of the luxuries of a format like the “Screen Life” films is that Amy’s frustrations are manifested in bank account screens or credit emails, capturing the mundanity of her struggle.

In its best moments, Profile comes close to tapping into that truly unsettling and horrifying realisation about why something like Bilel’s honeytrap is so appealing to young people living in liberal and progressive societies. Amy lives in a world where she has to hustle to pay her rent, where she cannot afford to rent a home with a backyard big enough to house her beloved dog, where she doesn’t even have a steady stream of work in a profession that she is obviously very good at. It is easy to understand how the simplicity that Bilel promises can be so appealing despite the numerous obvious red flags.

Talk about needing to be dialed in.

It helps that Timur Bekmambetov casts Shazad Latif as Bilel. Latif is a naturally charismatic performer who is also capable of suggesting a darker edge beneath a polished surface. (This was, to be fair, the core essence of his work on Star Trek: Discovery.) Latif plays Bilel as a sort of online salesman for his lifestyle, something of a weird online pick-up artist who has honed his seductive technique to a fine and cynical art. It’s possible to understand how he could draw his victims in, and he feels like the perfect subject for a film like this – a character that perhaps only exists in this form on Skype calls.

However, Profile is a little too broad and a little too clumsy to work as effectively as it might. Most obviously, Bekmambetov seems to believe that the only way that this sort of narrative can work is as a schlocky thriller. There’s something to be said for a more dramatic and character-driven take on Profile that is told in exactly the same way, but Bekmambetov insists on framing the film as a heighten genre piece that plays as a weird thriller with breakneck pacing and jump scares.

Profile converter.

There are moments when the genre conventions push Profile out of the unsettling real world stakes and towards something resembling absurdity. On a superficial level, Profile is a story that – by its nature – needs to unfold over an extended period of time, the gradual recruitment of Amy by Bilel. However, movies like Unfriended and Dark Web played out in real time, while Searching… had a perpetual tension maintaining narrative velocity. While Profile uses visuals like a calendar to explain the passage of time, the movie doesn’t convincingly offer a sense of that passage, perhaps because it feels so heightened.

At one point during a particularly tense Skype call, as Amy races frantically against time to get everything sorted and arranged to avoid revealing her true identity to Bilel, the background music builds and soars like it would in a much more conventional horror movie. It’s a cheap move, a very old-fashioned piece of cinematic storytelling that feels like it’s at odds with the rules of this genre. It ultimately turns out that the music is diegetic, and Amy was just coincidentally listening to real tense music on her laptop as a really tense moment was playing out in real time.

Lou-se lips.

It doesn’t help that everything in the movie is dialed up to maximum, as if Baekmambetov is worried that subtlety might be lost on this relatively new approach to storytelling. At one point, Amy discovers that the technician who is helping on the assignment has a mother from Syria, and has a ridiculous Islamophobic meltdown that exists to generate tension within that scene and then quickly disappears for the rest of the film. It’s an exploitative handling of a very real issue, and reducing it to a source of visceral narrative tension feels like it does the subject a disservice.

The character dynamics also suffer from this approach. Profile doesn’t seem to trust Bilel’s recruitment to be scary and unsettling enough on its own. The film tries to a layer a more conventional psychological thriller on top, as Amy finds herself being seduced by Bilel and her identity collapsing into the online persona that she has created. Can Amy retain the professional distance to complete her investigation? Is Amy being seduced by the charismatic persona on the other end of the call?

Resting his case.

This is an interesting hook, and there is probably a version of Profile that manages to pull off this approach to the character dynamics. Even at its best, the concept seems a little cliché and trite, something of an internet era update on the outdated trope of the female journalist who falls for her source that was rightly called out when it was used in Richard Jewell. However, the execution in Profile is particularly clumsy, because it feels so absurd and so heightened that it verges on self-parody.

Part of this might be the limitations of the “Screen Life” template, which prevents the audience from seeing any of Amy’s life that isn’t captured on her web camera. Part of this might be the extended timeframe of the movie, which necessitates jumping around in time and so skipping over smaller beats. Even then, Profile is the kind of movie where all of the people around Amy seem to realise that she is in over her head, but they do nothing to actually stop it outside of sending concerned messages and making frantic calls. There is no sense of a real world existing in Profile.

Dialing it down.

Profile is a movie which unironically has Amy’s editor actually utter the line, “You know what? This is has gone far enough. You’ve become someone else.” However, despite serving as a literal articulation of Amy’s arc, Amy then proceeds to go even further. There is something theoretically commendable here, in terms of demonstrating how this sort of recruitment works, but Profile plays it so large and so cartoonish that a lot of the dramatic weight and real-world horror is lost beneath an approach that feels lifted from a fifties public service warning.

This is a shame, because there’s a lot of potentially interesting and worthy material here, and this is a movie that should theoretically appeal to a target that is at risk from these sorts of recruitment tactics. Unfortunately, Profile doesn’t seem to believe that the reality is horrifying enough, and so loses itself in unconvincing thriller movie clichés.

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