It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
John Malkovich's "The Dancer Upstairs" was filmed before 9/11, and is based on a novel published in 1997, but has an eerie timeliness in its treatment of a terrorist movement that works as much through fear as though violence.
Filmed in Ecuador, it stars Javier Bardem as Augustin, an inward, troubled man who left the practice of law to join the police force because he wanted to be one step closer to justice. Now he has been assigned to track down a shadowy terrorist named Ezequiel, who is everywhere, and nowhere, and strikes at random to sow fear in the population. His trademark is to leave dead dogs hanging in public view. In China, a dead dog is symbolic of a tyrant executed by the people, we learn.
The movie's story, based on a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, is inspired by the Shining Path, a terrorist group in Peru. But this is not a docudrama; it is more concerned with noticing the ways in which terrorism takes its real toll on a nation's self-confidence. Ezequiel commits bold and shocking but small-scale public executions, many of helpless civilians in remote districts, but the central government is paralyzed by fear, martial law is declared and the army steps in to Augustin's investigation. The cure may be more damaging than the crime.
Augustin is a very private man. He seems to be happily married and to dote on his daughter, but he is happy to spend long periods away from home and doesn't really seem to focus on his wife's obsession with getting herself an improved nose. He never gives a convincing explanation of why he left the practice of law. His approach to the Ezequiel crimes is largely intuitive; faced with an enemy who works through rumor and legend, he looks more for vibes than clues, and at one point revisits the rural district where his family owned a coffee farm, since confiscated. There he will find--well, whatever he will find.