Review: 'Profile' showcases danger of online ISIS recruitment
Courtesy of Focus Features
Living in the age of COVID-19 has yielded several “Zoom” thrillers from “Host” to “Locked Down,” but Timur Bekmambetov’s “Profile” puts a unique spin on the genre. Maybe it’s because “Profile” was filmed and had a festival debut back in 2018, long before the pandemic upended everyday life, or its subject matter creates palpable suspense as it’s not based in supernatural lore (ala “Unfriended”). Instead, “Profile” is rooted in a different type of pandemic: the recruitment of barely legal teenagers into ISIS as potential slaves.
Between the onslaught of social media apps and society’s reliance on cell phones, filmmakers are trying to mold their narratives for that medium and foster the realities of everyday life. “Profile” is based on the 2015 bestseller “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by a journalist who now has heavy police protection and undergoes several name changes a year. Her task was investigating the online ecosphere for Isis predators who would lure young, mostly European, women into Syria. The journalist created fake accounts and struck up a serious affair with a prominent Islamic State commander who repeatedly tried to coax them overseas to be his “bride.” A tightrope act if ever one existed.
This becomes the basis for “Profile,” and the filmmakers take liberties to facilitate a memorable cinematic experience without losing the original narrative's edge. We follow British journalist Amy (Valene Kane) who has an insane personal life; juggling a needy boyfriend and a depleted bank account of which is all hashed out via a Skype interface. The mechanics can become repetitive (everyone calls all the time, but in reality, wouldn’t they just text first?) however “Profile” maneuvers around those blemishes with ease: (Bekmambetov isn’t afraid to speed up a certain sequence if he feels the movie is lagging). For her story, Amy calls herself “Melody,” wears a hijab and throws on heavy layers of makeup for her rendezvous with an Isis recruiter who calls himself Abu Bilel, played exceptionally by Sazad Latif.
“Profile” - thanks to the speeding-up maneuver the filmmakers employ - plays out in real-time with ad pop-ups and glitches. Seeing the name of Bilel inadvertently flash on screen creates its own sense of uneasiness, but watching Amy try to scheme her way out of several “close call” scenarios is the stuff all great thrillers are made of. “Profile” hits a few speed-bumps during the film's convoluted second act where the audience is expected to believe Amy’s blind devotion to Bilel. There’s no preface in the script or the performance to suggest Amy would upend her daily life to flirt with the idea of heading to Syria and starting a life with Bilel. Same for a sequence earlier in the film where Amy has objections about one of her tech support/line producers coming from Syrian descent and asks for a new appointee. None of these challengers are addressed in a meaningful way, creating awkward transitions in the aftermath.
Still, “Profile” has Amy and Bilel engaging in believable, well performed, conversations and audiences will hang on every word. Will her cover be blown? Was the constant buzzer living rent free in my head. Watching Amy navigate her iMac desktop and countless user screens with internet browsers can become quite engaging when baked into the narrative of a thriller. Googling these subjects were already terrifying endeavors, but “Profile” strategically takes it to the next level.
PROFILE opens in theaters Friday, May 14th