Film Reviews


By • Apr 25th, 2003 •

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Released by United Artists
Rated R / 116 mins.

CITY OF GHOSTS captures the mystery and danger of Asian third world decadence better than either version of THE QUIET AMERICAN [and the NBR gave the remake’s director, Philip Noyce, an Outstanding Achievement in Directing award this February of which I was completely in support, but still…] and the only film in my memory which equals Matt Dillon and DP Jim (BOYS DON’T CRY) Denault’s achievement in this regard, albeit in a different locale, was John Frankenheimer’s FRENCH CONNECTION II back in ‘75. Even LORD JIM, shot in the same locales back in ’65, doesn’t equal what we’ve got here. (Check the new issue of American Cinematographer magazine for an in depth article about Denault’s work on this film.)

With the exception of Clint Eastwood and Ida Lupino, who are phenomenons among American actors-turned-theatrical-film-helmsmen, Matt Dillon belongs, for now, on the long list of local thesps who have occasionally tried their luck behind the camera as well as in front of it. And like Marlon Brando, who Dillon reminds me of with his slow, deliberate, intelligent but halting manner in public, his first directorial effort is a spectacular one. (Brando’s was the cult-of-personality classic ONE EYED JACKS in 1961).

Taking on a difficult subject both narratively and logistically, Dillon co-penned the script, a picaresque about an ethically-conflicted man who journeys to Cambodia to root out his absentee mentor after an insurance scam in which they were both involved brings about the financial ruin of hundreds of people. 95% of the film takes place in Cambodia, a land I feel like I’m seeing in depth here for the first time. Following the NBR screening I attended, the tyro director made an appearance and assured the audience that the studio had been most was anxious to have him film somewhere else, somewhere safer and easier that could stand in for Cambodia. Now, with SARS threatening the globe, I imagine that this fascinating environment will be further off limits than ever.

Dillon claimed that a major influence on his filmmaking career was Carol Reed, the British director who often tackled the writings of Graham Greene, using the screen to explore that author’s obsession with illusion and reality in human interaction. Reed’s THE FALLEN IDOL, OUR MAN IN HAVANA, and THE THIRD MAN also dealt with mentors who turn out to be far from their students’ initial, more noble perceptions of them. Though he singled out OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS as a Reed influence, in CITY OF GHOSTS Dillon, as Jimmy Cremming, essays the Joseph Cotten/Holly Martins role from THE THIRD MAN, a fish out of water searching a strange terrain for evidence of a man with whom he is emotionally and professionally tied. James Caan’s Marvin is the Harry Lime/Orson Welles counterpart, a perpetrator of countless mean-spirited scams in which innocent people are likely to get hurt. In drawing the analogy between CITY OF GHOSTS and THE THIRD MAN, I should point out that while Joseph Cotton was a fine actor, one usually identifies his character as being weak, or a loser, even in his non-Welles-directed films. Dillon’s character is hardly a milquetoast; he blunders into a faraway land of eerie unreality with ferocious determination, and the constant specter of ill fate doesn’t deter him for a moment.

While the performances and script are impressively layered, the editing rule-breakingly wild, and the directorial vision bold and consistent, what struck me most powerfully about this film was its accumulation of detail. In practically every scene, though never to the detriment of story and performance, we are steered into shadows and corners to observe little moments of another reality, culled from Dillon’s own trip to Cambodia years ago, as well as from other remembered observations from his travels. A black comb in a water-filled sink. A handkerchief spread on a café chair before a character sits down. An unidentified baby nonchalantly carried by a bartender… I won’t enumerate them all, but you can’t miss them. I’ve rarely seen anything like it. Verhoeven’s THE FOURTH MAN does it on a symbolic level, and brilliantly. Dillon does it as a kind of connect-the-dots roadmap into a ravished cultural unconsciousness. Cremming absorbs his environment like a sponge, hoping that the sum of its parts will lead both to his father figure partner, and to an understanding of what led this man he respected down such a pernicious path. Along the way, certain characters are little more than details themselves – English ex-patriots inhabiting a seedy bar run by the most obese Gerard Depardieu we’ve yet seen, for example – while others blossom into full blown characterizations as their lives not only intersect our protagonist’s, but impact it in some vital way.

One of his ambivalent encounters is with Casper (Stellan Skarsgard), an associate of Marvin’s, whose character is an abridged variation on Michael Caine’s and Michael Redgrave’s in both filmed versions of Graham Greene’s THE QUIET AMERICAN. Desperately trying to forge a love relationship with an Asian woman he knows he can’t control, Casper lives in a state of terminal insecurity and paranoia about everything around him. His agenda is as transitory as everything else Dillon encounters, and potentially as deadly.

Caan’s entrepreneurial Marvin, when we finally get to him, flawlessly embodies a doomed huckster’s manic drive – his only refuge against the hostile forces with which he is dealing. These creepy Cambodian military bigwigs have no more regard for Marvin, beyond his abilities to get mega-money deals made, than they do for human life in general.

Matt Dillon gets chummy with NBR Screening Group Moderator, Bob Policastro, at the screening of City of Ghosts.

Gerard Depardieu is more window-dressing than flesh and blood. There is no denying that he periodically brings to life his portrayal of Emile, another displaced person who has learned to live and even wield some small degree of power within the mindboggling dislocation of a war-devastated land. But his character is introduced early on, at a time in the film’s first half hour when the montage of odd cuts is more disconcerting than it is engrossing, and he gets caught in the editorial undertow. His character grows more substantial and finds its footing as the film progresses, but until then he is a series of bizarre visual gags rather than a fluid performance.

Also in the film is Natascha McElhone, in the peripheral role of Sophie, offering Cremming an outside shot at, if not salvation, at least a respite. Ms. McElhone sure knows how to bite her lip as an expression of sexual interest. She did it well in LAUREL CANYON, too. I like her screen persona…her big silent film eyes and face; I hope she doesn’t have a limited repertoire.

The formidable score is worth singling out. A hodge-podge of indigenous excerpts, as well as Cambodian mutations of music and songs from other nations, it constantly informs and energizes the film’s other strengths. I’m looking forward to the CD.

CITY OF GHOSTS was in development in Dillon’s hands for seven years, and he deserves a great deal of credit for getting it on paper, from there onto a studio production schedule, and finally, under extremely trying conditions, for getting it on film. Whether he has other projects of such complexity and depth to give us remains to be seen. Perhaps it will be an inspired one-shot like ONE EYED JACKS. If so, there’s no rule that says one has to produce a stable of excellent films to validate oneself artistically. It’s a crummy business; where’s the disgrace in hitting and running? Brando’s solo directorial credit has stood the test of time, so has Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, and so, I suspect, will this.

Directed by Matt Dillon.
Music by Tyler Bates.
Written by Matt Dillon & Barry Gifford.
Director of Photography: Jim Denault.

Matt Dillon,
James Caan,
Stellan Skarsgard,
Gerard Depardieu,
Natascha McElhone.

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