As modern warfare is waged just as aggressively in cyberspace as it is on the battlefield, Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile takes an especially appropriate approach to the subject. Sparked by statistics of online recruitment into Middle Eastern terrorist groups, and based on Anna Erelle’s autobiographical book In the Skin of a Jihadist, it uses Bekmambetov’s “Screenlife” technique to draw the audience into an online environment that’s fraught with peril.
Screenlife is the cinematic storytelling mode in which the entire movie plays out as a view of the lead character’s computer desktop, on which we watch all manner of social media and other electronic communication play out. It has already been seen in the two Unfriended movies and will appear again with the August 3 release of the Sundance favorite Searching; Bekmambetov was a producer on all three, and Profile is the first such feature he’s directed. So far, Screenlife has worked in part because of its novelty, but also due to the first-hand point-of-view immediacy it allows and its relatability to our current lives, so much of which are lived online. Profile’s appeal in the latter sense, and the source of its corresponding tension, is twofold; in addition to its political topicality, the movie intrigues in that it tells a catfishing story from the point of view of the catfisher.
Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) is a British TV journalist scrambling to meet her deadline finishing a major story for her editor, Vick (Christine Adams). Investigating the phenomenon of alienated youth, including girls as young as teenagers, being seduced into joining ISIS, she sets up a fake Facebook account—calling herself “Melody Nelson,” Friending followers of their cause and reposting their videos. There’s an uneasy humor to the ease with which she finds these frightening pages, and the speed of the responses to “Melody” from both sympathizers and true jihadists. Suddenly, radical enemies who previously seemed part of another world are interacting with Amy just as easily as her boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins).
The one who particularly zeroes in on her Melody persona is Bilel (Shazad Latif), an ISIS soldier who turns on both the charm and the appeal to what he believes is a 20-year-old girl desperately seeking direction in her life. Wearing a hijab for their on-screen chats, Amy tells Bilel what he wants to hear and responds to both his ideological and romantic overtures. He knows how to tell “Melody” what she wants to hear too, and as their online relationship continues, his seduction—utilizing everything from violent propaganda videos to adorable-cat GIFs—seems to puncture Amy’s defenses as well. She becomes the very definition of getting too involved in your story, and Profile becomes a politically specific saga of a woman enticed—without any actual face-to-face contact—into a dangerous relationship.
Unlike the Unfriended movies, which play out in real time (which is part of their unfolding-dread effectiveness), Profile necessarily has to skip through the highlights of Amy’s months-long experience; we watch as specific video files are selected and played from among folders labeled “Day 1,” “Day 2,” etc. This creates an urgency to the storytelling, though it also results in plausibility issues, as on the movie’s face, Amy falls for Bilel rather quickly, with little soul-searching about what she’s getting herself involved with. By the same token, though, the use of Screenlife, which allows us to experience each new development as Amy does, hooks us into her narrative in a way traditional thriller filmmaking might not.
Bekmambetov orchestrates the constant stream of pop-up windows, messaging panels, video chats, etc. with great skill, playing off our familiarity with the apps being employed. While always keeping the eyes engaged, he teases our expectations and slips in little details on the edges of the screen that grab our emotions as well. Both Kane and Latif are very good at conveying both their actual characters and the identities they each put on to appeal to the other; we see more of the former in Amy’s case and more of the latter in Bilel’s, and the dichotomy between them, as much as the bigger picture of the rabbit hole Amy goes spiraling down, is what gives Profile its suspenseful power.