We have old romantic ideas of what undercover operations used to be like. The study of a group’s culture and rituals in dusty archives and libraries. The weeks of reconnaissance with binoculars and hidden cameras. The necessary grooming and costuming to get into character, and, finally, the discreet donning of a wire during the eventual meeting with the bad guys.
In director Timur Bekmambetov’s mesmerizing “Profile,” the emotional calculus of such spycraft remains, but it presents a squarely 21st century infiltration, in which process and risk are conducted and negotiated in cyberspace. The year is 2014, and Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) is a freelance journalist in London posing as a recent convert to Islam. Her fake Facebook profile, under the name Melody Nelson, promptly attracts the attention of Bilel (Shazad Latif), an eager ISIS recruiter in Syria. For a month, they cultivate a long-distance relationship, with Amy gathering more information about her subject with every Skype call, the promise of a bombshell investigative article—and, perhaps, a full-time job with the British newspaper that hired her—looming on the horizon.
The form of “Profile” is as vital to the film’s singular mystique as its content. The camera never moves, per se: The entire movie is visualized through Amy’s webcam, an aesthetic it almost shares with the 2018 mystery “Searching.” All of the drama, both literal and psychological, plays out on her Chromebook desktop. Like a hyperconnected spin on the once-ubiquitous found-footage subgenre, this approach lends the film an unshakeable patina of reality. (It’s based on the nonfiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist.)
Through this fascinating and voyeuristic perspective, “Profile” shows us how easy it is to suddenly immerse oneself in another’s culture, thanks to YouTube tutorials about how to properly apply a hijab to how to seduce a man, both of which assist in Amy’s reporting. It reveals the simplicity of faking one’s way into an international terrorist organization; all it takes is just a few Facebook Likes of ISIS snuff films.
Rarely has the process of identifying with a movie’s protagonist felt so effortless. We essentially are placed in her mind and body for the movie’s fraught duration, our eyes darting around her glowing screen as she multitasks with the command of an orchestra conductor.
We follow her thinking, and typing, and misspelling, and revising, in what feels like real time. We learn about her struggling financial situation through calendar pop-ups about overdue rent, we discover her cultural tastes through her iTunes library, and we track her FaceTimes and text threads shared with her editor, her best friend and her boyfriend, sometimes while simultaneously grooming Bilel thousands of miles away. This leads to such jarring juxtapositions as Amy chatting about the purchase of a shared home with her partner Matt (Morgan Watkins) while doom-scrolling through Facebook videos of ISIS beheadings—and discussing an equitable income burden with Matt as Amy, while at the same time preparing to enter the stone-age fundamentalist patriarchy of radical Islam as Melody.
And yet buried within such sophisticated formal trappings, with its multiple on-screen windows, its picture-in-picture and split-screen visuals complete with freezes, lags and muffled dialogue, lies the timeless emotional burden of the infiltrator: getting too close to the subject. As Amy and Belil’s conversations grow increasingly intimate and personal, we fear she will slip up, give away her identity somehow. But perhaps the greater concern is that she will develop actual feelings for the Kalashnikov-toting terrorist on the other side of the Skype connection.
As the distinctions between Amy and Melody blur, and she begins to exchange real confidences with the man, at what point is she no longer acting? “Profile” is a film about the internet age, about 21st century terrorism, about obsession and economy. And it may very well be the most gripping movie of this still-young year.
“Profile” opens Friday at most area theaters, including Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton.