City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts

USA, 2002. Rated R. 116 minutes.

Cast: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgård, Natascha McElhone, Gérard Depardieu, Sereyvuth Kem, Rose Byrne, Shawn Andrews, Chalee Sankhavesa, Christopher Curry
Writers: Matt Dillon, Barry Gifford
Music: Tyler Bates
Cinematographer: Jim Denault
Producers: Willi Baer, Michael Cerenzie, Deepak Nayar
Director: Matt Dillon


Grade: C- Review by Carlo Cavagna

C ity of Ghosts is what happens when a film is inspired by a location and not a story idea or a character. Most such films focus on atmosphere at the expense of a not well-thought-out plot. There are brilliant exceptions (Session 9), but most of the time, it's like visiting a restaurant for the ambiance and not the food. You may enjoy the sights, sounds, and service, but at the end of the evening you still go home with lumpy stew sitting in your belly.

City of Ghosts is best described as a film shot in Cambodia. Given Cambodia's bloody recent history, it's more remarkable for that than for being the directorial debut of Matt Dillon, who also stars. Cambodia is the film's raison d'être. It is the first Western feature to be filmed entirely (almost) in Cambodia since Lord Jim in 1964.

Some background is in order. Cambodia has probably endured the most appalling half century of any country since the Middle Ages. This includes Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. Since independence from the French in 1953, Cambodia has experienced numerous coups substituting one murderous government for another, invasions and bombings, and the extermination of a quarter of its people. The apex of death and destruction occurred under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, which upon assuming power in 1975 immediately relocated Cambodia's entire urban population to the countryside in an effort to create the perfect, self-sufficient agrarian communist society. Matt Dillon in the city of ghostsEthnic minorities were shot. Dissenters were shot. Families of dissenters were shot. People who might one day be dissenters were shot. Estimates vary, but between 1975 and 1979, famine and staggeringly widespread executions accounted for some two million deaths, out of a population of just eight million.

This history, never explicitly referenced but palpable in every frame, is why Phnom Pehn is a city of ghosts. When Dillon visited Cambodia he felt compelled to shoot something there, and it's not hard to see why. Phnom Pehn and its environs are a breathtakingly beautiful yet tragically worn-down place, much of it abandoned and near collapse. Everywhere you look there is evidence of past vitality and current decay. Dillon himself puts it best, "On one hand, there is a fantastical, hallucinatory, fairytale-like quality there among the ancient temples, stupas, and royal palaces. But there is also a malevolence and a sense of danger lurking just under the surface."

Dillon wanted to portray a character who undergoes a spiritual transformation in this context, but the story is plagued by vagueness and indirection. Dillon is Jimmy Cremming, a front man for a U.S. insurance scam set up by his longtime mentor, Marvin (James Caan doing his benign but corrupt thing), who resides in Southeast Asia. When numerous claims against their fraudulent coverage pour in after a hurricane, Jimmy flees to go look for Marvin. Along the way he meets up with Marvin's treacherous business partner Casper (Stellan Skarsgård, able as always), the beguiling Sophie (Natascha McElhone), and friendly bartender/hotel owner Emile (Gérard Depardieu, for some unfathomable reason). Assorted alcoholic Western expats, petty criminals, and inscrutable Cambodian ex-Somebodies also step into Jimmy's path, as does selfless cyclo driver Sok (novice actor Sereyvuth Kem, an actual Phnom Pehn moto taxi driver), who comes to represent the good side of the Cambodia. It needs representing.

The somnolent thriller languorously proceeds with little sense of purpose as the thematic threads unwind, unravel, and slip through Dillon's fingers unknitted. His transformation theme arises when at a certain point Marvin declares, "You're the way you're going to be for the rest of your life." Despite Dillon's desire to rebut that statement, Jimmy doesn't seem to undergo much internal turmoil even as he considers making different kinds of choices. This may be the fault of Dillon's insufficiently nuanced performance, which doesn't communicate anything more subtle than basic emotions like anger and confusion. The compelling setting distracts from the nuts and bolts of the plot anyway. In the end the images of Cambodia are what you'll hold onto as you walk out of the theater. They're almost as memorable as the sight of the shockingly enlarged Depardieu. Now there's a man who visits restaurants regardless of the quality of ambiance or food.

Review © April 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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