Knowing John Malkovich's personality as an actor helps you get a fix on his startlingly assured directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs (Fox Searchlight). The film has a foggy cast to it—flat and insinuatingly creepy, like the actor. But then it can be lit, in an instant, by searing flash-pots of cruelty and wit. Even when it's slightly opaque, it's transfixing.
Based on the 1995 novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, it's a Graham Greene-style political thriller set in an unnamed South American country, in which a Maoist (by way of Kant) professor who goes by the name Ezequiel (he's based on the leader of Peru's Shining Path, Abimael Guzmán) presides over a grass-roots revolution marked by venomous acts of terrorism. Prior to assassinating ministers and blowing up cafes, his followers cut the throats of hundreds of dogs and hang them from lampposts, the corpses bearing placards that call for the death of tyrants and proclaim the greatness of "President Ezequiel."
The undercover policeman assigned to capture the shadowy revolutionary is Colonel Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), an ex-lawyer who's part Indian and hails from the same poor, rural villages as many of Ezequiel's disciples. Rejas is an unusually conflicted protagonist for a policier, and Bardem (the magnificent star of Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls ) gives his hesitancy real gravity and eloquence. As a boy, Rejas wanted to be a farmer like his father, but the family's land was seized "in the name of the people." So he became a big-city lawyer, got mixed up in a case in which the president-elected beat a statutory rape charge, then resigned in disgust to find "a more honorable way of practicing law." Now, on the track of Ezequiel, Rejas is appalled by the leftists' wanton killings. But he's almost equally appalled by his corrupt government superiors, who neglect the people (just as Ezequiel says they do) and fairly relish the prospect of declaring martial law and unleashing right-wing death squads. Rejas doggedly pursues his leads while the country explodes around him.
Bardem is thicker here than in Before Night Falls, with salt-and-pepper hair and a droopy mustache, but his eyes remain as liquid. Married to a very white, egregiously superficial woman (she dabbles in cosmetics), his Rejas seems a doleful alien in his home, at the offices of the right-wing government, and in the village of his youth—to which he returns to gather information on the torture and execution of the priest who baptized him. His only soul mate—a calm center amid the moral and physical chaos—is Yolanda (Laura Morante), his daughter's strikingly beautiful ballet teacher. Yolanda is both sympathetic and just out of reach: She seems as torn between two worlds as he is. But what, exactly, is her other world?
There are times in The Dancer Upstairs when Malkovich doesn't seem to be telling the story so much as brooding on it; but just when you've resigned yourself to the deliberate pacing, there's an act of brutality so fast and so shocking that you can barely take it in. The violence is largely inflicted by small angelic boys and nubile adolescent girls in school uniforms, and it's in a different league than the nihilistic kiddie shoot-'em-ups of this year's acclaimed Brazilian thriller, City of God: Malkovich makes you cry out for the victims and the killers. He's brilliant at capturing the feel of a city that's outwardly functioning but palpably on the brink of breaking down. First come those hanging dogs (among them, most incongruously, small poodles), then the unexplained citywide blackouts, then a series of celebratory fireworks of eerily unknown origin. Then the tanks and paramilitary units move in: In one scene, a traffic jam of cars and trucks and tanks, a clownlike civilian leaps into the middle of a square to conduct traffic. But there's no way a clown can hold chaos at bay.
Shakespeare adapted his own work for the screen, and … sorry, that looks too weird. Let's try it again: Nicholas Shakespeare adapted his own work for the screen, and it's about two-thirds of a sterling job. He dropped the book's flashback structure (no great loss), bravely eschewed narration, and created some dazzling new crosscurrents. But he's not up to speed as a mystery writer. There's a lot of confusion when Rejas finds the diary of a dead schoolgirl assassin, which somehow leads to supermodels, which somehow leads to a videotape of Costa-Gavras' State of Siege (1973) that has been appended with some rebel party footage. In the novel, N. Shakespeare does a better job of tracing the evolution of Rejas' love for Yolanda, which begins when the dance teacher shows vehement appreciation of his dark and not-quite-classically-limned daughter. On screen, Bardem and Morante's rapport is charmingly tentative (and it's hard to take your eyes off Morante), but Malkovich keeps his camera at a coy distance. And neither he nor N. Shakespeare makes the climactic revelation seem more than a movieish coincidence.
That said, the climax is so drolly protracted that people in the audience (myself included) were screaming at the screen. Whatever the film's longueurs and narrative lapses, the news is that Malkovich is a genuine movie director. There's more in that weird head than even Charlie Kaufman could have dreamed.