Though it arrived in a familiar package for fans of films like The Den and Unfriended–an unsettling story told entirely on a computer screen–Timur Bekmambetov‘s thriller Profile surprised audiences with a novel-enough dose of tension at this year’s SXSW Conference, winning the Audience Award in the Visions section of the conference’s Film Track. Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Night Watch, Day Watch) is notably no stranger to this particularly contained method of storytelling, having produced Unfriended, its recently premiered pseudo-sequel Unfriended: Dark Web (review here), and the forthcoming John Cho starrer Searching. Luckily for the filmmaker, the device is still as impressively executed in Profile as it was the first time many of us encountered it.
The film follows Amy (Valene Kane, The Fall, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), a British journalist who embarks on an investigation of how ISIS recruits young European women online. After creating a fake Facebook account for a newly converted Muslim girl named Melody–who sports a profile photo featuring Snow White in a hijab–Amy becomes acquainted with Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, Star Trek: Discovery, Penny Dreadful), an ISIS militant who quickly grows enamored with her. Realizing that she has a very real opportunity to uncover the methods that ultimately lead young women to Syria to do jihad, Melody agrees to begin Skyping with the man she comes to know simply as “Bilel,” all the while attempting to pass as a young convert who never goes without her scarf. What ensues over the following weeks, however, is a dangerous journey deeper into the lion’s den that begins to overtake Amy’s life in ways she never imagined.
What perhaps helps Profile so authentically elicit chills is the fact that it is actually (and yes, actually) based on true events. The script, penned by Bekmambetov, Brittany Poulton, and Olga Kharina, is an adaptation of the real-life account of French journalist Anna Erelle (pseudonym) in her book In the Skin of a Jihadist. Erelle’s own social media-based investigation into a high-ranking terrorist under the name “Mélodie” is channeled in a wholly believable way on film in Amy’s story, and this particularly claustrophobic medium serves to put the nuanced tension and increasing emotional complexity of her exchanges with Bilel front and center. Additionally, in exploring the handful of excerpts that accompanied the book’s release in 2015, it is clear that Profile‘s screenwriters sought to faithfully maintain the more chilling details present in the month-long chats between Erelle’s Mélodie and her Bilel.
Given the contained nature of the film, Profile‘s effectiveness essentially hinges on the performances of Kane and Latif–and neither disappoints. Kane’s portrayal of Amy presents as a bricolage of scrappiness, unearned journalistic moxie, naïveté, and latent emotional vulnerability. There is an undeniable lability to Amy’s self-concept that is gradually revealed as we come to see the balance between her job as a journalist and her personal life waver, and Kane conveys the character’s complex personal journey with great care. As Bilel, Latif is a perfectly disconcerting blend of seductive, charming, and subtly threatening. His disarming performance admittedly makes for many unsettling moments in which it is very easy to forget that he is a self-proclaimed professional killer; in such scenes, you begin to understand even more so how Amy could let herself inch so much closer to danger without a second thought.
As previously mentioned, Bekmambetov’s computer screen-based narrative framework once again makes for quite the entertaining ride, even given Profile‘s comparatively restrained tone. In fact, the seemingly slight on-screen details–a half-typed message, a miskeyed password, the message in a secondary conversation–result in some of the film’s most anxiety-inducing moments. One particular scene in which Amy continues to receive incoming calls from a colleague while chatting with an increasingly suspicious Bilel produced an outright Pavlovian clenching reaction in me every time I heard Skype’s incoming call tone thereafter.
Admittedly, there are times when Profile appears to take some creative liberties with the details of Erelle’s and Bilel’s online interactions. These moments will no doubt push the buttons of the genre’s more inherently incredulous fans. Even more, the film’s finale will likely underwhelm those looking for a blow-out, surprise shocker of a finish to the story of Amy and Bilel–though I found the resolution here to be notably and realistically frightening.
While somewhat valid, none of these potential complaints significantly detract from the overall resounding emotional energy of the film, which taps into very real fears tied up in technology, terrorism, and the unknown in novel ways. Moreover, Bekmambetov’s ability to elicit nail-biting tension simply via alerts, keystrokes, and clicks while simultaneously maintaining an engaging, character-centric story on a computer screen makes Profile especially noteworthy for a film of its ilk. Ultimately, Profile is proof that the truth can indeed be far more terrifying than the fiction we create.