A computer screen chimes to life. Windows proliferate. Notifications ping. Video-call boxes pop up, tabs multiply, messenger apps ticker endlessly, a stream of bite-size demands for attention. And in the middle of it all, an increasingly frantic, Extremely Online female freelance journalist with money worries and a deadline to meet, makes a series of very poor and deeply unprofessional decisions.
But enough about my average Wednesday evening — we’re here to talk about the newly released Profile, which is exactly like the above description except it also, in extremely dubious taste, involves ISIS. Directed by one-man-explosion-in-the-explosion-factory Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakh-Russian filmmaker’s latest tracks a young woman’s game of catfish and mouse with an attractive ISIS recruiter. Bekmambetov broke out with the Russian-language Night Watch movies, which led to a Hollywood career forged from decreasingly brash but increasingly forgettable tentpoles: Wanted (2008), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), and because this was definitely a film that happened, Ben-Hur (2016). More recently, however, he has become the self-ordained high priest of a movie format he’s named “Screenlife,” in which everything takes place on a device’s screen. Having produced two of the first feature-length examples — Unfriended (2014) and Searching (2018) — Profile is Bekmambetov’s first go at directing a Screenlife movie. Or rather, it was: The movie premiered at the Berlin Film Festival all the way back in February 2018.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see why some marketing wonk might think that now’s the perfect time for a film that takes place entirely on one computer desktop: In these unprecedented etc., etc., it’s become an article of faith that we’re living our lives primarily online so Profile is … topical? On the other, more carpal-tunnel-ridden hand, does anyone really want to unwind after a hard day at the computer by watching someone else have an even harder one? And given that 2018 was practically a whole Billie Eilish ago, won’t three-year-old tech look laughably creaky?
To that end, at least, Bekmambetov delivers. Like any weird internet rabbit hole you might fall down when you know you should be reading a book or brewing kombucha or going to sleep, this thriller is almost annoyingly slick and moreish. We’re introduced to journalist Amy (Valene Kane) in a blizzard of cross-purposes phone calls, social media registrations, and overdue calendar notifications, as she cobbles together an online presence in the persona of Melody, a demure 19-year-old recent convert to Islam. No sooner has she shared a few dodgy videos on Facebook than she is contacted by Bilel (Shazad Latif), a British ISIS fighter in Syria. They quickly progress to Skype calls (aww, Skype!), which Amy assiduously records with the help of hard-bitten commissioning editor Vick (Christine Adams) and tech boffin Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh). The aim is to expose the methods of targeting, radicalizing, and then trafficking Western girls to be “ISIS wives,” while also securing Amy a staff job.
Initially, Amy multitasks like a trooper, calling up picture-in-picture news articles and blog posts that debunk Bilel’s claims in real time, while maintaining her naive and docile demeanor for the camera. But despite the normalizing influence of her BFF Kathy (Emma Cater) and her preternaturally understanding boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins), Amy’s performance of infatuation for Bilel’s benefit soon starts to turn into the real thing. And this is where Profile‘s fast-spinning wheels come off.
Incredulity dawns as credibility drains. It’s not so much that Amy’s idiocy is hard to swallow, though it is (the film is based on a true story, but having three screenwriters suggests that “base” might be quite far away). It’s that the movie’s format — its showy, intrusive Screenlife-iness — makes demands that require far more manipulation than the ostensible simplicity of “It’s all one screen” suggests. Parts of Profile run in real time, and the tension is somewhat earned. Others, we soon discover, are recordings being played back — but by whom? And when? And for what purpose? Nobody telling this story in good faith after the fact would tell it like this, and nobody experiencing it as it happens would be able to. So we’re left in a strangely artificial, airless, and impossible point of view, which is designed to mimic how we interact with the world through our screens but doesn’t actually do that at all. Screenlife, as unreliably practiced here, is not a format. It’s a gimmick.
The thing is, despite Amy’s rather cursory research process — her journalism-ism — the film does at times threaten to hazard a semi-profound observation about our changing relationship to information. Or about how our online personas and actual personalities may be more alike than we think. Wherever you go, even virtually, there you are; your digital footprint is as distinctive as your fingerprint. But it’s hard to grasp any lasting grander message when this pointed tribute to our eroded attention spans itself plays out in .5-second microbursts of activity.
It makes Profile gripping and pacy, but the suspense manufactured is entirely derived from Bekmambetov’s admittedly masterful triggering of our collective online PTSD. Every accidental reply all, every didn’t-know-the-camera-was-still-on, every viral video of some guy logging on for a Zoom court date with the screen name b***f***ker3000, every time you’ve nearly been caught in one of those mortifying white lies that comprise 80 percent of all of our online fronting — these are the terrors that lurk in the movie’s corners. And they have nothing to do with vulnerable, foolish girls having their lives ruined before they’ve even begun because of systematic exploitation by ruthless extremists.
No one is against dumb fun. Dumb fun is a foundational aspect of Western culture, by god, and if we allow it to be devalued, the terrorists win. But you don’t even have to be against Bekmambetov’s particular brand of intellectual unencumberment (you’re reading the words of one of film criticism’s foremost Wanted defenders) to be made uncomfortable by the way Profile co-opts real-world tragedy to lend gravitas to what is essentially a gaudy, glitchy storytelling game. Here, a cute kitty-cat GIF playing alongside a beheading video for ironic effect is not even saying “Woah, man, look at what our online lives have become!” — it’s saying that it is saying that. And it suggests that no matter how potent or provocative the premise, the story of every so-called Screenlife film will always, first and foremost, be Screenlife itself.