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Review: Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile Gains Tension at the Expense of Plausibility

Timur Bekmambetov’s Screenlife film is more fluff piece than hard-hitting news story.

1.5
Profile
Photo: Focus Features

Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile traces a British reporter’s attempts to infiltrate an ISIS terrorist cell. Investigating the growing trend of young Western women leaving their lives behind to become ISIS brides, Amy Whittaker (Valerie Kane) is almost immediately solicited through Facebook by Abu Bilel (Shazad Latif), a notorious Islamic State jihadist who wants to bring her over to the cause. Sensing an even juicier story than initially intended, Amy gets the go-ahead from her editor, Vick (Christine Adams), to pursue it, and the resulting correspondence between Amy, who poses as a 20-year-old recent convert to Islam named Melody Nelson, and Abu largely plays out as a series of daily screen recordings, with the pair engaging in an increasingly dangerous cat-and-mouse game of deception.

The difference between Profile and Bekmambetov’s previous Screenlife hits as a producer, namely Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web, is that this film’s narrative is rooted in truth. Based on the 2015 book In the Skin of a Jihadist, in which French journalist Anna Erelle chronicled her month-long online relationship with the real Abu Bilel as he attempted to court her while relaying valuable information about the inner workings of ISIS in the process, the film sticks close to the actual timeline of events. Erelle’s story was part of a watershed moment in Islamic State reportage, with the ensuing fatwa called against her cementing the very real danger that journalists could attract by covering the ongoing Syrian civil war. (The story also closely coincided with the kidnapping and beheading of American journalist James Foley.)

Bekmambetov, though, is less interested in showing the real-life impact of this story than in mining as much suspense as possible out of it using boilerplate thriller tropes, staging Amy’s ordeal as a more immediate, ripped-from-the-headlines version of Searching. In this regard, he’s certainly perfected the nuts and bolts of the Screenlife storytelling method, imagining Amy’s desktop as a digital minefield of incessant notifications, popping up both from the persistent Abu and from her personal contacts, complicating the separation of her dual identities. For a little while, Bekmambetov astutely captures the chaos of a very-online life, with Amy having to balance notices of overdue rent, texts from her worried boyfriend (Morgan Watkins), and urgent editorial deadlines with a terrorist’s constant Skype calls.

But it becomes increasingly difficult to shake that much of the film’s tension derives mostly from Amy’s utter unpreparedness for the situations she finds herself in, a move that too often requires a certain suspension of disbelief. In reality, Erelle took careful precautions before embarking on this ruse, involving police at an early stage and setting up independent methods of communication that would be difficult to trace back to her. By contrast, Amy approaches her assignment with the recklessness of a junior reporter for a high school paper, pulling up webpages about “How to Make Someone Fall in Love with You” or, in a rather conspicuous bid for dramatic effect on the filmmakers’ part, frantically researching relatively common ISIS knowledge in the seconds before jumping on a call with Abu.

Bekmambetov flirts with some deeper themes, tying in the loneliness-imbued YouTube videos of a young British woman (Kelley Mack) who became an ISIS bride, which Amy uses for character inspiration. There’s also an attempt to humanize Abu by giving him a backstory about how he faced prejudice as the son of immigrants in the U.K., leading Amy to sympathize with him. But as the narrative contrivances pile up, it becomes apparent that this is mostly just background noise for the film’s climactic goal of putting Amy in grave danger. Indeed, Bekmambetov long abandons any semblance of plausibility by the time Amy’s heart has completely melted for Abu and she exposes her real identity by accident. And this after she spins around in her chair earlier in the film and oh-so-conveniently makes it easier for her location to be identified from the recognizable London streetscape outside her window.

Had more attention been paid to the psychology of Amy’s burgeoning relationship with Abu, or if her history was more richly sketched in general, maybe such lapses of judgment would have felt credible. And if you consider that Erelle has stated that she was never able to see the humanity in Abu, it’s hard not to catch a whiff of sexism to the depiction of Amy’s emotional vulnerability. A savvier film might have traced her confusing, contradictory actions to a certain kind of privileged ignorance, with her warmth toward Abu and subsequent blunders a natural consequence of her white guilt. But by the time the film ends on a preachy note where Amy bravely allows Vick to run the story despite the risks because, as she dramatically types, “It’s the fear that’s killing us. THE FEAR,” it’s clear that Profile is more fluff piece than hard-hitting news story, inadvertently betraying a real reporter’s courage in the process.

Cast: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Morgan Watkins, Emma Cater, Kelley Mack Director: Timur Bekmambetov Screenwriter: Britt Poulton, Olga Kharina, Timur Bekmambetov Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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