In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on MovieJawn.
As our lives increasingly unfold on camera and in front of a variety of screens, it stands to reason that the art we make and consume will regularly reflect this. At the dawn of the century this took the form of an influx of found footage horror, as kicked off by the wild success of The Blair Witch Project. Within a few years, the subgenre became ubiquitous to the point of being (unfairly) maligned as a cheap cinematic stunt used to elevate subpar material. While this is the case for some examples of the form, it’s certainly not the rule. Like any genre, there’s plenty of good and bad to be found within.
In recent years, found footage has gotten more specific with its style, setting movies entirely on the screen of a computer. Nacho Vigalondo went admirably big with the concept with Open Windows, while Joe Swanberg, with his segment in the V/H/S anthology entitled The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, kept it smaller and more localized. COVID-19 brought us the terrifying breakout hit HOST, and a million imitators followed suit. While this will certainly lead to a deluge of “made entirely in quarantine” movies of mixed quality, it’s exciting to see new ideas and cinematic tools take shape over time.
Of the recent “computer screen” movies, a handful have been attached to Timur Bekmambetov, the innovative filmmaker who brought us Night Watch and Wanted. He acted as producer on the intense Unfriended series as well Searching, which used the computer screen concept to not just put forth an absolutely phenomenal mystery, but to give us an incredibly detailed history of the Internet on the whole. After having produced so many “computer screen” movies, it’s no wonder Bekmambetov decided to step behind the camera (in front of a tablet?) to direct one of his own. It’s called Profile, and it’s fantastic. Don’t be fooled by the timeline, however. Bekmambetov’s computer screen directorial debut was made pre-pandemic, back in 2018. My guess is that the recent popularity of the style opened the door for a wide release here in 2021, where the nature of the gimmick is even more at home.
Loosely based on a true story, Profile takes place on the screen of Amy (Valene Kane), an investigative journalist working to uncover information about the recruitment process of ISIS. Many young British women have been recruited into the ranks of the terrorist organization via social media, but given the secretive and violent ends of the path of radicalization, it’s near impossible to get a full picture without actually going through it oneself. Amy received a commission to do exactly that. Her job is to create an identity and inculcate it into ISIS far enough to map out the entire process, but not far enough to, ya know, actually join ISIS. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s this line that is tread for the entirety of Profile.
Using recognizable interfaces of a variety of apps and browsers, the film chronicles Amy’s investigative efforts and the issues that they cause in her personal and professional life. Watching Profile, it becomes painfully clear just how much of our lives, pandemic or no, are navigated and mediated in the digital space. Thirty years ago it would’ve seemed insane to believe that work, hobbies, and emotional connections could all thrive inside a bunch of servers, but in the present day it’s as commonplace as anything. Profile uses lived-in realism to remind us of just how incredible our state of connectivity is while also highlighting its inherent vulnerabilities, which are all too easy to forget.
Kane gives a deeply nuanced performance, made doubly impressive by the fact that she’s essentially just a face on the screen. As Amy gets deeper into the mission, and her allegiances grow murkier and harder to define, not a second of it feels undeveloped or rushed. Her recruiter, played with dark, intense gusto by Shazad Latif, is a performance of equal depth. It’s hard to tell what portions of the tale he spins in order to ensnare Amy are true, but even the most egregious claims are rooted in an experience that, despite being put forth by an enemy, draw empathy from the viewer. The film blurs these ethical lines regularly, which is important to divorce the tale from a good/bad dichotomy that could be read as flat or insensitive.
Being a novelty presentation, it’s important that the pace not falter, and for the most part Profile succeeds on keeping things interesting. A sense of dread hangs over the proceedings, and even though this is a story that anyone could predict in a macro sense, on a moment to moment basis there is plenty of reason to wonder what’s going to happen next. I was on the edge of my seat (and since I watched it on an iPad, it was easy to get sucked into the framing device — the detail is perfect).
With the “computer screen” movie subgenre being predominantly used for horror, it was nice to see it applied to a real world scenario so effectively. Since this sort of storytelling is inevitably going to flood the market in the coming months and years, films like Profile give me hope that within the limitations inherent to the form, clever and resourceful filmmakers will continue to find ways to apply their imaginations nonetheless.