reviewed by Ken Hanke
I’m always a little leery of movies made by actors-turned-director. Occasionally, the results can be stunning — George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. At other times, they show the strain of someone trying too hard to be “important” — Todd Field’s In the Bedroom.
John Malkovich’s directorial debut lands somewhere between those two extremes: The Dancer Upstairs is not quite stunning, but neither does it strive for a loftiness out of its reach. Better yet, it’s not stamped with the inverted snobbery of much independent cinema. Where so many indie filmmakers bend over backwards to be different from their Hollywood counterparts (Fields is a perfect example), Malkovich uses every weapon in his cinematic arsenal to make his film as polished, accomplished and effective as he can. And in the main, he succeeds brilliantly.
I’m not sure that I have ever seen a more compelling picture of sudden violence as is depicted here — Malkovich’s approach is apt, since the film takes place in a world where terrorist acts are the order of the day. The fact that the movie’s outbursts of brutal violence are housed in an otherwise leisurely paced mystery (admittedly more mysterious to its characters than to its viewers) makes them seem just that much more shocking and sudden.
What problems there are with the film stem from Nicholas Shakespeare’s adaptation of his own novel for the screen. Though based in large part on the search for the founder of the Peruvian terrorist organization the Shining Path, the story is peculiarly set in a generic South American location simply identified as somewhere “in Latin America.” And while a number of the details are almost straight out of history, not all of those technically correct elements necessarily work in the film’s favor. The most glaring of these concerns the romance between Detective Augistin Rejas (Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls) and his daughter’s dance teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante).
The film shrewdly insinuates a degree of dissatisfaction in Rejas marriage — his wife appears to be an empty-headed creature whose only obsession is her looks. (This fact is used humorously on several occasions and brilliantly so near the end of the film, when the police activities are momentarily stalled while the woman pauses to apply lipstick.) As such, it’s not hard to see why the obviously sensitive and intelligent Rejas would be attracted to Yolanda, but the relationship never quite rings true, especially once all the facts are revealed. Then too, the film goes on too long for its own good, containing several possible stopping points before it actually does end (this is largely because it insists on following up on the Rejas-Yolanda romance).
However, the movie is too intelligent and well-made overall to leave you faulting it overmuch on these grounds. To some degree, it’s a “problem” picture, since Rejas is a man who gave up being a lawyer in order to pursue a “more direct” path to justice by being a policeman working for the very government that confiscated his family’s coffee plantation, and he is every bit as corrupt and dangerous as the terrorist he seeks.
That said, Dancer never skimps on its status as a cleverly developed thriller. Malkovich is content to let the film’s deeper aspects just exist in the fabric of the story. The screenplay is delicately laced with a wry humor that makes Rejas believably human. When the onset of the terrorist activities are gruesomely foretold by the sudden appearance of hanged dogs with revolutionary slogans attached to them, Rejas’ assistant wonders who would do such a thing, only to have his boss postulate, “I wouldn’t rule out a cat lover.”
It helps no end that Rejas is in the hands of Javier Bardem, an actor of both range and charisma, who can get the good out of such snappy dialogue without ever making it sound like a Der Arnold one-liner. In the end, Malkovich’s film is as world-weary as Rejas and his jaundiced, yet strangely hopeful, worldview. When Dancer works, it’s brilliant. When it doesn’t work, you can at least see what was being attempted, and that’s something worth having in a cinematic world where most thrillers — political and otherwise — mistake the merely noisy for the truly effective.