Synopsis: An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter.
Stars: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Morgan Watkins
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Above all else, I’m grateful that Profile has come along now because it forced me to find the actual word to describe the unique way it is presented to viewers. That would be Screenlife. In a nutshell, Screenlife is the format of a movie (or TV show) where everything you see happens on a “screen”. That could be a computer, iPad, iPhone, or other electronic devices that can be displayed across one ‘desktop’. So, whatever you are watching it on becomes the entire “world” of the piece. The first movie I can remember seeing this in was 2014’s Unfriended and what I assumed would be a tiresome gimmick wound up being the baseline for a solid thriller, made even scarier if you sat close enough in a theater so the screen took up your entire field of vision. I repeated the same experience with the far underappreciated Searching from 2018 and 2020’s Host (filmed mid-pandemic) was a clever mash-up of haunted Zoom-meeting and Screenlife terror.
Now along comes Profile and again I was hesitant to embrace this schtick again, wondering how far the concept could be taken before it became stale. Shot in nine days back in 2018 and appearing in several festivals in the same year, it’s admittedly odd that it’s taken so long for Profile to come out. By now, it almost feels like a period piece because so much of the conflict described has changed and the recruitment procedures have gone further underground. Would there be room for another Screenlife entry that didn’t have a supernatural angle but still dealt with horror of a more real-world kind? More importantly, is this the kind of film an audience just getting back to movie theaters would want to line up for a ticket to?
Based on French journalist Anna Érelle’s non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist: Inside Islamic State’s Recruitment Networks, Profile sticks close to Érelle’s account of how she pretended online to be a teenager who recently converted to Islam, creating fake Facebook profiles in an attempt to lure members of ISIS to her. All of this began as a story for a news magazine about a teenager from Belgium that went missing and was thought to have flown to Syria to join ISIS after being recruited and then sold to sex traffickers. Eventually connecting with a man in Syria, Érelle (a pseudonym, by the way) quickly found herself in over her head and while she escaped any imminent danger, a bounty was put on her life and she must live in anonymity for fear of repercussions for her reporting. Scary stuff.
The screenwriters of Profile do some decent work fictionalizing the story to alter things just enough, not only to separate their story from Érelle’s but also to amp up the tension that will add to the experience. Instead of Anna we have Amy (Valene Kane, Victor Frankenstein) a UK journalist freelancing for The Guardian who wants to do a story about ISIS recruitment of British females. She’s finally convinced her wary boss (Christine Adams, Batman Begins) to let her pose as a teenager on Facebook where a number of girls find the men that will bring them over to Syria with promises of marriage and prosperity. Armed with a new identity, Melody Nelson, and continuing to read up on Islamic culture, Amy goes fishing in a lake of darkness and catches a whopper that she isn’t prepared for.
Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, The Commuter) shows interest right away and before long the two of them are Skyping (with a Muslim co-worker of Amy’s standing by for guidance) and getting to know one another. Amy, quick on the keyboard, is able to divert Bilel’s attention when he asks questions she isn’t prepared for or wants to see her personal screen filled with “Amy” folders and pictures of her and her boyfriend. As the conversations continue, they grow more personal and lines get blurred, calling into question the ethos of journalistic integrity and what Amy is willing to do for her story. Each new piece of information from Bilel could be another story she can write so why not get everything she can? Is she willing to go the distance (literally) to gain that knowledge?
For a time, this back and forth feels like a vice grip that director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is turning tighter and tighter, daring the audience to stay with Amy’s story as she falls deeper into a pit of her own making. Quick glimpses of ISIS recruitment videos (including some well-known brutal beheading videos that stop short of anything major) are meant to rattle and achieve their goal quickly and then ease off. This technique works on a nice clip to a certain point until we see Amy making one too many errant mistakes, both as a person and a professional journalist. Plenty of characters in horror movies act like dingbats and we write them off as expendable sacks of blood but there’s something different about this reality-based approach that doesn’t allow us to afford Amy that same grace. She should know better, and it becomes a question of her overall intelligence after a while.
At first, I thought it was perhaps due to Kane’s waif-ish presence that feels so flimsy you believe a strong cough might send her shooting backward through a window. It might play well as Melody when pretending to be subservient for Bilel but it’s there as Amy, too. Even the usually obnoxious millennials in Unfriended and its solid sequel (which just so happen to be produced by Bekmambetov) come off as more grounded than Amy. That also stymies the relationship being built with Latif’s character who at times feels like the most appealing person in the entire film. Apparently unburdened by the approach to the filmmaking, Latif is often required to be in motion when speaking but he never drops his character and stays laser focused. It’s an intense performance that the movie benefits immensely from.
Of all the Screenlife films so far, Profile is the least engaging. Part of that is the run time which in no way needs to be 105 minutes and another factor is that its entire plot feels ever-so-slightly like old news. The energy level can’t help but run low after a time and with less characters to juggle, there’s fewer people to care about or be interested in. I wouldn’t say it’s something to skip because if you ever watch how these films are made you can appreciate the work that goes into it and I do think it hits each of its beats when and how it is supposed to. It just doesn’t hit them with as much clarity as it could have.