“It’s the fear that’s killing us. The fear!”
Movies that take place entirely on a computer screen haven’t quite become all the rage, but there have been enough of them over the past few years to justify the idea of a “desktop horror” sub-genre. Some like The Den (2013) are terrifically terrifying, and others are Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows (2014). Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) has touched the sub-genre before as producer of Unfriended (2014) and this year’s sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, but he takes a more controlling hand with his latest film, Profile.
Amy (Valene Kane) is in something of a pickle. She’s a freelance journalist living paycheck to paycheck, and with rent and other bills overdue she’s settled on a story a news producer is excited to air. Numerous Western European women have left home to join ISIS, and so far no one’s figured out the exact method by which the terror group’s recruiters lure women into their grip. Amy’s pitch is simple — using social media she’ll pose as a recent convert to Islam, wait to be contacted, and then play the role to see how and why Western women are making the journey. She doesn’t wait for long as her Facebook account quickly catches the eye of Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif), and soon she’s engaging in Skype video calls, trading flirtatious emojis, and making plans to join him in Syria.
Profile is based on a novel by Anna Érelle which in turn is based on her actual experience, but its origin in truth doesn’t make it any more realistic. Suspense is neutered by the film’s rushed pacing, viewer engagement is nullified thanks to a poorly-written protagonist, and thrills are absent all together. Just as damning, the film never answers the central question its lead character proposes. Why would a Western woman willfully give up her freedom for a world that at best sees her as inferior and at worst will force her into sex slavery or death?
The film moves quickly as Amy’s plan goes into motion and is immediately a success when Abu takes the bait seemingly within minutes and she’s falling under his spell a short time later. They move just as fast through conversations with both participants lacking the caution you’d expect, but while Abu’s actions can be explained away by his motivations hers are entirely based in stupidity. Her every action is rushed with very little planning, and each mistake is so annoyingly amateurish that when they come back to bite her there’s no satisfaction for viewers.
That willful ignorance combined with her own casual acts of racism make for an unlikable character, and that in turn leaves us unconcerned with the danger growing around her. The beats become highly predictable, the red flags continually fail to catch her attention, and the end — the film’s or her own — can’t come soon enough.
These are all issues that kill the film’s chances as a thriller, but it could have still succeeded as a dramatic exploration of why people make the choices they do. We see Amy’s existence stuck between a boyfriend making plans for the two to move in together and a jihadist promising that she’ll be super happy as his wife… as long as she doesn’t lie, always wears her niqab, and doesn’t mind him having other wives. The film’s trying to make a contrast between the men and their desire to plan out her life, but her boyfriend’s actions seem pretty damn reasonable all things considered.
And that again leaves the central question unanswered. Knowing what she knows, why would she (or any equally knowledgeable Western woman) fall for Abu’s recruitment patter? The only answer the film gives is that she’s not all that bright and far too easily seduced by a tall, dark stranger who knows his way around a kitchen. It’s ultimately more than a little insulting.
Profile is technically proficient and takes great advantage of its desktop setting to the point that it feels real in its form. Viewers watching on their own computer screens may be tempted to reach for their mouse on more than one occasion, but its effect as a movie is far less successful. If you want the best the “sub-genre” has to offer, stick with the real world terrors of Zachary Donohue’s The Den. If you want something from the Bekmambetov factory, give the supernatural hijinks of Unfriended a go. If you want something powerful about the ease with which ISIS draws women into its fold, though, you’ll have to leave the desktop screen behind and seek out the more traditional narrative of the Dutch film Layla M.