At a time when American travel-section editors are scrambling to find destinations that seem sufficiently safe, it’s reassuring to know that there are still Yanks who ramble the globe looking for trouble. The directorial debuts of two very different types of bad-boy actors, Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts and John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs, were inspired by the filmmakers’ travels in Cambodia and Peru, respectively. Neither Dillon nor Malkovich (whose Hollywood debut, coincidentally, was The Killing Fields, a real-life Cambodian saga) has a specific political agenda. But both depict a complicated world whose physical and moral hazards have little to do with the stock Arab-terrorist or Russian-mafia menaces of mainstream Hollywood thrillers.
Actually, Russian mobsters do play a role in City of Ghosts, which is the more conventional yet also the better executed of the two movies. Dillon’s film, co-scripted by novelist Barry Gifford, is a classic tale of self-exiled adventurers developing somethingwhether portfolio or consciencein the developing world. The story begins with TV coverage of a hurricane, which is being watched carefully by Jimmy (Dillon). The reason for his interest becomes clear as soon as the fashionably unkempt young man arrives at his New York insurance-company office. The FBI agents awaiting him explain that the firm owes millions to hurricane victims but that its overseas accounts are empty. Though Jimmy’s record is clean, the feds ask him to surrender his passport, just in case. Instead, he flies to Bangkok and then makes his way by foot and train to humid, devastated Phnom Penh, searching for his mentor, company founder Marvin (James Caan). Gradually, Jimmy learns that Marvin plans to invest the insurance-fraud payoff in a loopy plan for a Cambodian casino-hotel resort.
At first, however, Jimmy finds not Marvin but an exotic cast of lost souls, including his antsy longtime colleague, Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgård), who’s mistaken a Thai hooker for his true love, and oddball hotel/cafe proprietor Emile (Gerard Depardieu), who upholds peace and justice in his tiny patch of a chaotic realm. These unbeautiful losers are contrasted with Sok (Sereyvuth Kem), an improbably honorable cyclo operator who becomes Jimmy’s most reliable ally, and Sophie (Natascha McElhone), an improbably elegant temple-art restorer who initially deflects Jimmy but then becomes his lover. Cambodia is portrayed as a country where anything can happen, as long as it’s something bad. Jimmy loses his passport, gets beaten up, and is tormented by a monkey who raids his ratty hotel room. Then Marvin disappears, apparently kidnapped at a seedy roadside karaoke joint. Of course, Jimmy gradually gets his bearings and sets out to make everything more or less right again.
Conceptually, the movie offers few surprisesit’s Casablanca with a Buddhist twist. But Dillon and Gifford’s screenplay is clever, well-paced, and only occasionally glib. (Like so many Hollywood storytellers, the scripters don’t knock themselves out on the romance; Sophie just suddenly switches from icy untouchable to warmhearted helpmate.) Although the horrors of the Khmer Rouge provide but a piece of the story’s elaborate backdrop, Dillon and cinematographer Jim Denault make evocative use of bullet-pocked façades, ruined temples, and mist-cloaked fields in which both skulls and mines lurk just below the surface. The first Western film shot in Cambodia in decades, City of Ghosts is compelling simply as a lousy-planet guide to one of the world’s most ravaged countries.
United Artists kept City of Ghosts on the shelf for the better part of a year, and thus far the film has received reviews that range from dismissive to grudgingly admiring. Part of the problem, surely, is that few people were prepared to think of Dillon as the kind of actor who might someday become an auteur. The movie is also a little old-fashioned in vibe (Graham Greene-ish colonial melancholy), look (no digital-video shaky-cam), and acting (while Dillon exudes neo-beatnik cool, Caan, Depardieu, and Skarsgård all play outsize eccentrics). Give the director credit, though: If Dillon hasn’t done anything unprecedented, he has refurbished the expat drama with skill, panache, and spooky real-world ambience.
Whereas City of Ghosts is a con-artist flick that turns existential, The Dancer Upstairs is a police procedural whose quarry injects a sort of Maoist absurdism into the mix. Malkovich’s film is darker and more deliberatewhich is to say, more Europeanthan Dillon’s. Although set in an unnamed, sort-of Peruvian country, it was filmed mostly in Spain and Portugal, with a cast of European actors speaking Latin-accented English and a sensibility that’s more Old World than New.
Introduced during a brief but fateful encounter at a rural checkpoint, Agustin Rejas (Before Night Falls’ Javier Bardem) is an honorable police officer who works for a disreputable regime. He and his small team of detectivesperhaps the only uncorrupted people in the nation’s entire justice systemare searching for a whimsically apocalyptic terrorist leader who calls himself Ezequiel (Abel Folk, playing a character modeled on Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán). Rejas wants to break the case, of course, halting the revolutionaries’ use of such innocents as dogs, chickens, young children, and fashion models to carry broadsides and bombs. His sense of urgency isn’t derived simply from the desire to end the terrorist actions, however. He also hopes to capture Ezequiel before the revolutionary’s outrages spur the military to counterattack indiscriminately, further destabilizing the country.
The insurrection has much private resonance for the soulful Rejas, who watches State of SiegeCosta-Gavras’ 1973 thriller about the CIA’s clash with Uruguayan terroristsfor guidance. The police officer’s special connections to Ezequiel’s campaign include the fact that it began in his home province and claimed as early victims some people he knew as a boy. Rejas also speaks Quechua, the Andean Indian language, which allows him to better communicate with the terrorist movement’s rural followers. As he strives to preserve the political order, though, the cop misplaces his own domestic tranquility. Strapped for cash and increasingly alienated by his wife’s bourgeois frivolousness, Rejas finds himself beguiled by his young daughter’s lovely ballet teacher, Yolanda (The Son’s Room’s Laura Morante)one of the dancers upstairs. Rejas and Yolanda’s tender, awkward flirtation is more believable than Jimmy and Sophie’s instant romance, at least until its forced final development.
Adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his own 1995 novel, The Dancer Upstairs is a taut, shadowy mood piece neatly intertwining political and personal crises. It’s neither an ideological film nor the sort of gleeful provocation Malkovich has often indulged in as an actor. (The director leaves the flamboyance to Ezequiel, whose followers set off fireworks to celebrate each successful hit on the status quo.) For all its emphasis on Rejas’ internal conflicts, however, the movie is still a thriller, and as such it ultimately falters. Shakespeare’s script doesn’t surprise as often as it clearly intends, and its ultimate shocker astounds only Rejas, not the viewer. Like David Cronenberg’s Spider, The Dancer Upstairs purveys a surfeit of upscale foreboding in the service of a low-rent kicker. CP