Unfolding entirely on a laptop screen, Timur Bekmambetov’s new thriller Profile seeks to explore the murky world of how social media is used to recruit vulnerable young women to ISIS. The results are as compelling as they are silly. Back when the entirely desktop-based Unfriended was released in 2014, Bekmambetov (who produced the film) was candid about wanting to expand the conceit into an entire genre unto itself.
Far from being a gimmick, it was a way to understand a major factor in modern life and the way we connect and he wanted to progress past the horror of Unfriended into drama and rom-com. Now in 2018, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching premiered at Sundance ahead of a summer release, and forthcoming films produced by Bekmambetov included Unfriended: Dark Web, Unfollowed and Liked – “a Cyrano de Bergerac comedy for the digital age”.
Despite stretching credulity at times, Unfriended showed that the ‘screen movie’ did have something to it – a character is effectively displayed on the screen via their desktop, wallpaper, music library, and private actions. “Show me your desktop,” demands the charismatic Bilel (Shazad Latif) over Skype in Profile, wanting a glimpse into the personal world of the young woman he’s chatting to. She’s a recent convert to Islam, Melody – actually British journalist, Amy (Valene Kane). The panic is palpable as the cluttered desktop of a chain-smoking, cynical journo doesn’t marry with the 20-year-old naïf she is (quite unconvincingly) playing. This dynamic, though – this connection through the screen, and indeed the creation of character through recording their desktop – crackles with relevance and energy.
The narrative may follow eye-rolling conventions and see the undercover reporter slowly ‘going native’, being taken in by Bilel, but this makes sense given the seductive nature of the action she’s trying to expose. She may not be the typical target but she has her own concerns that can make what he is offering all the more attractive. It’s perhaps in the conveying of those personal stresses that Profile verges on its silliest aspects; from the bitchy boss (Christine Adams) to the increasingly frustrated boyfriend (Morgan Watkins), both of whom she only ever seems to speak to via laptop FaceTime. It’s understandable why that’s the case, of course, but much like a single-location film it sometimes feels like too much contortion to maintain the premise.
That said, Profile does remain quite a gripping watch even as things begin to feel completely outlandish (indeed, it’s actually based on a true story) and this is largely down to the two central performances. Kane may not convince as Melody, but she’s much better as a woman (however gullibly) being taken in by the snares Bilel is laying. Latif is the MVP as Bilel; chillingly magnetic, disarming and convincing in a way that brings home just how dangerous predators like him can be, even from hundreds of miles away over wi-fi. It’s not enough for Profile to improve on the neat formula established by Unfriended, but this is another serviceable step towards the ‘screen movie’ genre.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson