The Dancer Upstairs’ steps on its own toes

Eric Hoyt

John Malkovich makes his directorial debut with the ambitious but muddled political thriller “The Dancer Upstairs.” Adapted by Nicholas Shakespeare from his novel and set in an unnamed Latin American country, the film follows the honest Detective Augustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) as he investigates a string of terrorist actions attributed to a revolutionary leader known as Ezequiel.

Malkovich is no stranger to the political thriller genre; his performance as a pathological presidential assassin in “In the Line of Fire” (1993) won him a well deserved Oscar nomination. But from the very beginning, Malkovich makes it clear that he is more interested in a meditative human drama rather than an action-oriented thriller — evidenced by the soundtrack’s repeated use of the late Nina Simone singing “Where Did the Time Go?”

Unfortunately, the human drama is underdeveloped and ultimately unaffecting. The infatuation Rejas develops with his daughter’s ballet instructor Yolanda (Laura Morante) seems contrived — motivated more by the demands of the narrative than by any genuine emotional longing. The film also misses the ripe opportunity to reveal character through pairing the characters of Rejas and Ezequiel. The two encounters that do take place between Rejas and Ezequiel are among the film’s most vibrant moments.

Visually the film doesn’t offer much either. Bland shots are interspersed with hand-held camerawork. In the film’s most cinematically interesting sequence, shots of Rejas and Yolanda talking are intercut with shots of an avant-garde theatrical performance. Perhaps best described as “Cats” meets Matthew Barney, the avant-garde performance eerily literalizes the metaphor of the artist as terrorist. The ideological implication of this cross-cutting, however, reveals to the audience a key piece of information that is withheld from Rejas until the end of the film. By placing us so far ahead of the central character in terms of knowledge, the mystery Rejas is investigating ceases to be of much interest. As a result, the poorly paced second hour of “The Dancer Upstairs” slugs along drearily to an anti-climactic finale.

On the bright side, the actors do their best with the material they are given. The great Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) once again delivers a commanding yet sympathetic performance as the thoughtful detective. Equally noteworthy is Morante, who plays Yolanda with appropriate mystique. Despite the film’s sloppy structure, Bardem and Morante seem to have real chemistry.

As the film progresses, a videotape of Costa-Gavras’ “State of Siege” (1973) is discovered and becomes a key plot element. Although the quality of his films have been highly inconsistent and often heavy handed, Costa-Gavras’ best works like “Z” (1969) and “Missing” (1982) are riveting political thrillers that, unlike “The Dancer Upstairs,” deliver on both the emotional and ideological level.

Although most would read the Costa-Gavras reference simply as an homage to the king of the genre, it can also be read as a subtle critique of one-sided thrillers leveled by the purposefully ambiguous “The Dancer Upstairs,” which avoids siding with either the government or the revolutionaries. This critique might be valid, but a film needs more than plain ambiguity — it needs to be engaging.