“Profile” is based on a true story, from 2014, about an English reporter who masqueraded online as a Muslim convert to infiltrate ISIS. That’s straightforward enough.
What’s even more straightforward — except that at the same time it isn’t at all straightforward — is how the film plays out. “Profile” consists entirely of screen shots: Skype and FaceTime calls, Facebook messaging, the reporter’s desktop, Google searches, even, yes, a few cat videos (the demands of Web verisimilitude must be met). This is straightforward, because that’s how the events happened: virtually. It’s not straightforward, because seeing only small screens on a big screen is not how movies are normally viewed: cinematically.
“Profile” begins with Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) setting up a Facebook profile as Melody Nelson. “Melody” is a decade younger than Amy (who uses a YouTube video explaining how to reduce how old you look using cosmetics). She’s a recent Muslim convert, put off by materialist, pleasure-seeking Western culture. The idea is to get the online attention of English jihadists now fighting in Syria for ISIS. The ploy quickly succeeds. Bilel (Shazad Latif) is your basic young guy: boastful, self-centered, horny. The difference is he carries an AK-47 and among the things he boasts about is killing people. Almost immediately he’s urging Melody to come to Syria and marry him.
Amy’s very hard-driving editor, Vick (Christine Adams), is thrilled. The assignment was her idea. Amy is a freelancer, and Vick dangles a staff job for her if she can get the story. That’s a bit of realism that long predates the Internet.
Difficult as the assignment is, the demands of Amy’s daily life — experienced online, of course — make it that much harder: notices about her rent being overdue, calls and messages from her annoying boyfriend, Matt (Morgan Watkins), and equally annoying friend Kathy (Emma Cater). Both of them are kind of awful, actually, in a recognizably aren’t-I-millennial way.
That awfulness may be why Amy/Melody finds herself drawn in more and more by the very different — and vastly worse — awfulness of Bilel. “You know what? This has gone far enough,” Vick says. “You’ve become somebody else.” Google Translate comes up on screen several times, as Amy (or is it Melody?) scrambles to find the English equivalent of an Arabic phrase. Viewers might find themselves situated the other way around, wondering what’s Arabic for “Stockholm Syndrome.”
The director, Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” 2012; the 2016 remake of “Ben-Hur”) doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a great cinematic innovator. But he uses this online approach very effectively: It’s involving and (appropriately) dislocating, if also ultimately fatiguing. “Profile” is jumpy and nervy: the political thriller as extended IT session. If the characters are more avatars than people, maybe it’s because that’s how we all are online.
“Profile” is one big gimmick, but the gimmickiness, you might say, is that in a very real sense it’s shot entirely on location. Is it a great movie? No, but it’s something rare in any medium, film or otherwise: a work in which form really is content.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Bekmambetov, Britt Poulton, and Olga Kharina. Starring Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 105 minutes. R (language, disturbing images)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.