Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.
Starring Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Emma Cater, and Morgan Watkins.
An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter.
The first thing that sticks out about Profile is that director Timur Bekmambetov’s screen-centric thriller uses the previous Facebook layout, which checks out as the film actually played some genre festivals starting as far back as 2018. However, the importance of studying and combating Internet radicalization of all kinds has only grown in urgency, meaning the film is already aging well.
Valene Kane is Amy, a British journalist hoping to acquire a staff position by impressing her chief editor Vick (Christine Adams) by going undercover online with Islamic extremists to extrapolate information on how they persuade young European women – sometimes teenagers – to give up their lives and traveled to Syria joining the cause. Naturally, if successful, this would be a huge article, albeit a dangerous endeavor. More intriguingly, Profile (written by Britt Poulton, Olga Kharina, and Timur Bekmambetov) is based on true events documented in Anna Érelle’s book In the Skin of a Jihadist. Unfortunately, several unnecessary third-act swerves don’t compute and result in a filmmaker getting too twisty for his own good. Still, one has to expect a go big or go home approach from the guy that signed on to remake Ben-Hur.
Timur Bekmambetov has often failed in oddball action exercises (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and horror. He makes up for it with noteworthy producing credits such as Unfriended, which kick-started the screens-only storytelling sub-genre. With that said, it’s a pleasure to say that he gets it right for the first two-thirds directing one of these himself, honing in on the bonding process that develops, humanizing a terrorist, and flipping the script on both Amy and audiences.
Except here, Amy is no longer Amy. She wipes her Facebook profile clean (or she made a new account and stupidly accidentally attached a real picture of herself to it for plot convenience) and changes her name to Melody, selecting an avatar of Snow White wearing a burka. She also has a Skype account associated with her new identity, which could be for one of two reasons: there is less risk for jihadists buttering up recruits over that social media platform, or it’s easier to film dialogue exchanges there. It’s also possible Facebook wants no part highlighted as the video calling source where malicious or horrifying events take place. Theorizing aside, Melody starts using the search engine to her advantage and winds up sharing a seemingly harmless post from Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif delivering an outstanding performance that’s not always as easy to read as you might assume) hanging out with friends.
Before you can blink, Bilel is in Melody’s Facebook private messages inquiring about basic life details, her recent conversion to Islam, and pressuring for a Skype call. Melody heads over to YouTube to copy and paste bullet points for a teenage girl’s reasoning for leasing her musical ambitions behind in London joining ISIS. This feels like something Melody should have done in preparation for the investigation, but it does serve a greater point in the narrative. Starting from a prejudiced place combined with anxiety (she panics that the tech coworker who will be recording and monitoring the calls is Muslim), Melody endures Bilel’s interest and inevitable romantic affection. He blows off her inquiries about war-torn Syria to express how much his people love cats (there’s plenty of cat memes here), how drone strikes are murdering their children, and more or less decries exposes about women being sold into sex slavery as fake news.
There is also a lot of deception that goes into establishing a connection; Melody successfully passes herself off as 20 years old, plays the liar role well when she needs to fake a disconnection, and sets up a brand-new profile on her laptop to avoid suspicions of being a journalist when asked to share her screen. Some of these tall tales might be difficult to accept from a narrative perspective, but as Profile digs deeper into Bilel’s characterization, it becomes more clear why he’s not too concerned about her real age. Without spoiling it, a centerpiece exchange drastically changes everything Profile is about, cementing a legitimate bond between the two. Watching Valene Kane process those emotions and express guilt, even if it’s only with a keyboard, resonates emotionally. She becomes more interested in Bilel than her actual boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins), also seen through calls prepping moving arrangements. Obviously, the job proves to strain their relationship, but with limited screen time, it’s one aspect that needed more fleshing out.
The greatest twist Timur Bekmambetov could have pulled off was reeling viewers in with terrorist tension to reveal a more complicated dynamic of people with more in common than they think. That’s not to say Bilel is absolved of his own wrongdoings (and not just as a war criminal, but also the persistence with which he pushes for Melody to live with him in Syria and get married), just that the character could have been written as xenophobic fear-mongering trash fueling conservatives’ wet dreams around the world. To an extent, Profile accomplishes just that before descending into outright silliness, no doubt dramatizing the reality of the situation. I’m sure the general facts are still correct, but the route there feels as if Timur Bekbambetov got lazy and went the screen horror route for the third act. Still, as a potboiler, it remains compelling, and on the whole, Profile draws attention to the real dangers of the Internet and a true story worth exploring beyond this riveting version.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com