Over the last few years, filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov has become synonymous with Screenlife cinema, producing projects like Unfriended and Searching, and now he’s at the helm of a tech-immersive film of his own: Profile. Something I’ve always appreciated about Bekmambetov’s films—whether it’s the ones that he’s producing or directing—is how he forward-thinking he is when it comes to utilizing technology in the world of film (one of my favorite examples is Hardcore Henry), and with Profile, he proves that there’s plenty of drama to be found online as he manages to crank up the tension throughout this engrossing and harrowing terrorism thriller.
Based on the novel In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Érelle, Profile is centered on a struggling journalist named Amy (Valene Kane), who’s barely keeping it together in her everyday life—she doesn’t seem particularly invested in her relationship with her well-meaning boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins), she’s behind on her rent and bills, and all she wants to do is secure the story of a lifetime in order to earn a permanent position with the outlet she works for. The only catch is that it might end up costing her everything else in return.
Through her work, Amy has been following the disturbing trend of online radicalization, where young women end up joining terrorist groups after adopting their extremist ideals and helping ISIS carry out their violent practices. In some cases, the women end up being trafficked, passed around between groups of men, and then brutally murdered. But Amy decides to go straight to the source and set up a fake profile for a young woman named Melody, who is a religious convert looking to escape London and make her way to Syria in support of ISIS’s efforts. Before she knows it, she’s being courted by Abu Bilel (Shazad Latif), one of their charismatic recruiters who takes an interest in Melody, and the two begin a series of back-and-forth online conversations that begin to blur the line between journalistic intentions and all-consuming infatuation. And that’s when things in Profile really start to take some very dark turns.
What’s interesting to me about using Screenlife as a means of visual storytelling is that because you can’t often rely on the usual tricks of the trade in filmmaking (production design, lighting, etc.), that means directors have to find new ways of immersing viewers in their stories, and I think Bekmambetov has carved out his own little niche in Hollywood with his keen ability to be able to do just that. Again, when you’re trying to create tension in a standard thriller, usually you can use blocking and other elements to help heighten those aspects of your script, but here in Profile, the only tools at Bekmambetov’s disposal exist purely within the confines of a laptop. And yet, somehow, he does it exceedingly well.
There are sequences in Profile where Bekmambetov makes Amy’s activities on her computer while she’s speaking with Bilal feel truly dangerous, like at any moment the terrorist could peak around the frame of Skype at what she’s doing, and I think that those kinds of screen proximity limitations are what really sell the thriller elements at the heart of Profile for me. Just something as innocuous as Amy making notes on her desktop about Bilal’s life during their conversations was enough to get my pulse racing at times, and when Amy finds herself plunging straight into the deep end of her investigation, taking things further than most of us ever would, I was a straight-up nervous wreck, and the fact that this was all unfolding on someone’s computer screen really added a layer of authenticity that made aspects of Profile wholly unnerving. I’m definitely rethinking just how much of my own life I’m willing to put online after this, and I already hold a lot back whenever I’m on social media.
Anchored by a pair of mesmerizing performances from its leads, Profile is yet another fantastic effort from Bekmambetov, who continues to redefine the term cinéma verité (because this film is based on a real-life incident, I think it’s intriguing how the lines between fact and fiction blur here as Bekmambetov stages something of a reenactment with his cast and collaborators). I know there are people out there who don’t really dig on the Screenlife techniques, and that’s fine, but for me, I find them completely enthralling. Plus, Profile might be an incredibly well-crafted and immersive thriller, but the film also serves as an eye-opening cautionary tale that demonstrates just how terrifying social media can be if you’re not careful.
Movie Score: 4/5