Review: Jihadist investigation drama 'Profile' is high in tension

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Valene Kane (inset) stars as Amy and Shazad Latif as terrorist Abu Bilel Al-Britani in Timur Bekmambetov's "Profile."
Face to face with Islamic State: Valene Kane (inset) stars as undercover reporter Amy and Shazad Latif as terrorist recruiter Abu Bilel Al-Britani in Timur Bekmambetov's taut "screenlife" thriller "Profile." (Bazelevs and Focus Features)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

"Profile," based on a journalist's undercover investigation of an Islamic State recruiter, is inventive, well-acted and one of the most tense movies of the year so far.

British investigative reporter Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) is writing about the phenomenon of European women and girls being recruited to join Islamic State. She crafts a fake Facebook profile as "Melody Nelson," a 19-year-old recent convert to Islam, and shares a jihadist's video. With alarming suddenness, he makes contact with her. What follows is an increasingly taut game of deception with life-or-death stakes as the recruiter, Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif), insists on video chatting with her and digs into her background over dozens of daily conversations — and the lines between professional and personal blur.

"Profile" is based on the nonfiction book "In the Skin of a Jihadist" by a French journalist who actually did this; a fair amount of dialogue comes verbatim from her account.

Director and co-writer Timur Bekmambetov (the "Night Watch" trilogy) uses what's being called the "screenlife format": We see only what is shown on Amy's computer screen, as in "Searching" or "Unfriended," which he also produced. Rather than playing as a gimmick, it increases tension as Amy conducts in-character Skype sessions with Bilel while getting calls and notifications from friends, colleagues and her boyfriend. Things get particularly hairy when Bilel demands she share her screen with him.

The screenlife format traps the viewer in Amy's predicament. There's no exit, no God's-eye view. It's akin to effective use of an extended unbroken take: You're trapped in the protagonist's experience. The choice even reveals character, as the speed with which Amy rejects calls betrays stress and the way she grabs needed information or learns processes on the fly displays intelligence. Even the hesitance with which she types, then deletes, messages conveys emotion.

The acting by the two leads is very good. Apart from playing their sides of the game, they must convince us that a sophisticated, intelligent English journalist could be swayed and perhaps seduced by a homicidal terrorist. Amy is well aware of what really happens to these girls; she has seen the notorious videos and studied the organization. Yet the actors pull off the magic trick of making her wavering seem credible.

Latif has got to be charming, smart and believable as an enthusiastic romancer who happens to be a deadly zealot. He pulls it off. His rare moments of venom sting all the more bitterly because of all the honey he has poured in her ear.

It's with impressive skill that Kane executes her emotional and intellectual high-wire act. Her performance is layered, complex, reactive. We sense her panic when things happen too fast. We feel her shifting gears among her editor, boyfriend or quarry-hunter. We believe it when she starts to feel something for Bilel and cringe when she starts to slip up.

"Profile" works on several levels — as a cinematic feat, dual character study, gripping thriller … and as a cautionary tale.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.