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— Bruce Willis, The Siege

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Director Timur Bekmambetov effectively puts his Screenlife filmmaking process to work in this nerve-wracking tale of a journalist going undercover to expose an ISIS recruiting ring.

Incognito

Bilel (Shazad Latif)
Bilel (Shazad Latif)

It was a relationship developed completely online. Through Skype, chat, Facebook posts and YouTube videos, the guy promises the girl the world. Anything she wants. Horses. Luxurious accommodations. Mansions. A swimming pool. The good life. They never meet in person, and yet they start to discuss marriage. It’s a whirlwind romance that redefines the possibilities of a long-distance, virtual relationship.

No. This isn’t the COVID version of You’ve Got Mail. This is something else entirely.

The year is 2014.

When the boy asks the girl what she wants for a dowry, she responds with, “A Kalashnikov rifle.”

He’s an ISIS soldier in Syria.

She’s a journalist in London posing as a disenfranchised 20-year-old girl.

Profile is “inspired” by Anna Erelle’s true story, documented in the book In the Skin of a Jihadist. At the time Erelle performed her undercover investigation, it was headline news how hundreds of girls and young women were being recruited from Europe and elsewhere to join the ranks of ISIS. Getting in was easy and full of promise; getting out was deadly and rarely successful.

Screen Time

Timur Bekmambetov — the gifted director behind Angelina Jolie’s Wanted — takes a novel approach to telling this story. The end effect is it unfolds completely on the MacBook screen of journalist Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). There are her pop-up notifications. Emails of bills due and overdrawn accounts. A messy desktop of sundry files. Her music library’s latest tunes play in the background. Texts from her boyfriend, Matt (Morgan Watkins, Kingsman: The Secret Service), and editor, Vick (Christine Adams, TV’s Agents of SHIELD), appear in Messenger. FaceTime calls allow her to tour a London flat Matt thinks they should grab. It’s all supplemented by the dreaded hum of the (offscreen) phone in vibrate mode.

At first, it sounds like some sort of gimmick, a way to get around the restrictions of producing a movie in the era of COVID. But, if anything, the COVID-induced over reliance on screen time and stream time might actually work against the movie’s ambitions.

Ultimately, though, Profile moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace and the ending is a powerful reminder of the intimate details one person can hold over another without ever having met that person face-to-face.

The frustrations of daily life — the incessant pop-up notifications, messages and calls (Egads! That ghastly Skype ringtone!) — all play out, laid bare as Amy lives her life while taking on a remarkably dangerous undercover investigation. That adds a technical level of complication to Amy’s world: a second user profile on her laptop to supplement her fake profiles and fake — alternate — life as Melody Nelson, a jihadist in the making.

As Amy types out her text responses, the keyboard gains a new level of emotive power. The hesitancy of the keystroke, the deleting and retyping of words (with typos, by design)... The ellipsis. Even the sounds of the keyboard — and its silence — help convey a level of tension and anxiety.

Then there are all those how-to videos as the internet morphs into an all-access shop of amateurs turned virtual authorities. Go for it. Search and find self-help on topics such as “how to pretend to be in love with someone.”

A New Melody

Amy (Valene Kane)
Amy (Valene Kane)

Profile hangs together surprisingly well.

Bilel, the ISIS soldier turned romantic recruiter, is played with suitable charisma by Shazad Latif (The Second Best Marigold Hotel) but he’s not without menace. It’s fitting that sense of danger reaches its zenith without his presence onscreen and is instead revealed through all the data he’s mined about Amy and weaponized against her.

Even so, amid the cluttered desktop, some narrative elements get shorted. In particular, Amy clumsily handles her real-world romance with Matt. Yeah, it’s an undercover gig, but he might’ve been brought in for mental well-being as misplaced posts suggest she’s gotten married to her soldier suitor. At the same time, she readily shares videos of Bilel with a girlfriend who seeks Amy’s input on which dress to wear to a party.

Taking that from another angle, though, it further stresses the ease with which relationships can fall apart as the virtual overtakes the actual and actual face time is replaced with FaceTime.

Regardless, if Bekmambetov has any say in the matter, this type of filmmaking — using a downloadable tool he’s pioneered called Screenlife — is simply in its infancy. Other efforts using the technique have delved into the found-footage tropes with Unfriended while Searching essentially takes Taken online. It’s one way to combat the bloat of big-budget Hollywood productions — and it certainly aids as a creative release in the thick of the pandemic (for the record, Profile was already running the film festival circuit back in 2018).