The thriller Profile takes the concept of creating a different life online and immerses it in real-world intrigue. Filmed as if the action takes place via internet interaction entirely via desktops and cell phones, it depicts an undercover journalist trying to infiltrate the ISIS recruitment network by mimicking other radicalized Western young women on social media.
While it’s no surprise that she starts to find her ISIS contact charming, Profile is absorbing because of how effectively it puts us in her shoes. First, it shows how easily she finds the terrorist organization through social media, then why she begins to think of the recruiter with compassion.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (2016’s Ben-Hur) previously experimented with the over-the-shoulder feel of watching someone’s online interactions as a producer on 2018’s Searching. Although fictional, Profile is based on the book In the Skin of a Jihadist, an account under the pseudonym Anna Erelle about a similar sting.
Set in 2014, Profile follows British freelancer Amy Whitaker (Valene Kane, The Fall, Gangs of London), who hopes her latest expose wins her a staff job on a TV news magazine. Interested in how ISIS lures young women into human trafficking, she creates a fake Facebook profile as “Melody,” complete with a demure image of Snow White in a hijab and shares links and videos from a profile of a British teen who snuck away to Syria.
Within minutes, “Melody” receives text messages from Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, The Commuter), a handsome and charismatic ISIS fighter eager to know more about her.
Although we don’t see Amy’s face beyond Skype or other video chats, Profile drops us into her mindset by watching her at work. Her desktop is a jumble of icons. She plays music that matches her mood, opens loads of browser windows, and creates digital sticky notes to keep track of facts about Bilel and “Melody.” She learns how to wear a hijab by visiting YouTube, where she also finds makeup techniques to make herself look younger and listens to posts from the teen whose path she’s trying to emulate.
Amy at first is cautious. Her producer, Vick (Christine Adams, Black Lightning), assigns IT expert Lou Karim (Amir Rahimzadeh, TV’s The Heights) to record Amy’s Skype chats with Bilel. Lou’s mother is from Syria, and he’s quick to clue in Amy about casting her eyes downward while onscreen and hiding a tattoo on her hand.
But as Amy becomes more involved in the story, she talks to Bilel without Lou on the line. Bilel seems proud of what he does, adding an air of danger to their chats.
Profile builds suspense as Amy turns out to be more susceptible to Bilel than she realizes. Bekmambetov, who wrote the script with Britt Poulton (Them That Follow) and Olga Kharina (Yolki 3), doesn’t show much of Amy’s life beyond work. Her boyfriend, Matt, talks with her about apartments because they plan to move in together, but Amy brushes him off because she’s concentrating on the ISIS story. Matt knows about her work, but his irritation is a stark contrast to Bilel, who seems over the moon to speak with her, even with gunfire in the background.
Kane and Latif generate a believable connection, testing each other to learn whether the other is sincere. Bilel wants Melody to share her desktop and asks about the pinging alerts of her other messages. But he also tells her about his family and a London sweetshop where the owner speaks Arabic. As Amy feels drawn deeper into his confidence, it’s only a matter of time before she confuses a detail about “Melody” with her own life, and we can’t help but wonder what will happen to her if and when Bilel notices.