Monday Movie: The Dancer Upstairs, by David Bax
There are so many bad examples of actors turning into directors that when one of them shows promise, it’s worth taking note. With The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich made a debut behind the camera that, though occasionally a tad self-conscious, avoids many of the traps into which many such films fall. Unfortunately, Malkovich has yet to make another feature.
Set in an unnamed Latin American country, The Dancer Upstairs is a political thriller that doesn’t feel like it. Sure, there are numerous explosions and shady, backroom dealings but it’s not nearly as plot-forward as the genre would suggest. Rather, this is a psychological and existential meditation on one man’s moral identity. Javier Bardem plays an officer of the law named Rejas who is tasked with tracking down a secretive, violent revolutionary leader. But the government for whom Rejas works is immoral in its own, corrupt way.
So the focus of the story is Rejas and where he fits into this world. Can he agree with the rebels but not their methods? Can he do good in the service of an immoral institution? Malkovich, as an actor, gives his performers plenty of screentime to act and not just talk. But he is also a director with his own eye and the visual ideas that come out of it. The Dancer Upstairs has a pace that is patient and atmospheric. Occasionally, it’s just plain slow but, then again, this is the work of a first-time director. Let’s hope Malkovich works out the kinks and returns to filmmaking soon.