City of Ghosts

April, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Matt Dillon

Starring:Matt Dillon, James Caan, Natascha McElhone, Gérard Depardieu, Kem Sereyvuth, and Stellan Skarsgård

This has certainly been a good year for first-time directors, especially those who've also written the screenplay upon which their maiden effort is based; such is the case with actor Matt Dillion who co-wrote and directed this dark look at the redemption of a lost soul among a group of marginal ex-pats living on the edges of civilization in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Despite a convoluted story line and the annoying presence of too many poorly thought-out transition shots, Dillion manages to use his cast and exotic settings to good effect; the result is a richly atmospheric examination of places to which no one in his or her right mind would want to go. Some directors do comedy well, others action stories, still others interpersonal conflict. Dillion does squalor and does it with an eerily fascinating relish. 

In this film, he plays Jimmy, whose success in selling catastrophic hurricane insurance puts him on the lam when the coverage is exposed as a sham. The FBI begins looking into the sudden disappearance of Jimmy's boss, the mysterious Marvin (James Caan) who's masterminded the fraud. Jimmy discovers that Marvin has gone to Cambodia and slips into that country in search of his employer to get paid for his part of the scheme. Aided by Kaspar, another of Marvin's crew, (played to world-weary perfection by the wonderful Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard) Jimmy sets himself up in a seedy hotel in Phnom Penh run by Gerard Depardieu, a dissolute Frenchman with a gravel voice and pot belly of monumental proportions. Since Marvin has kept in touch with Jimmy through other underworld contacts, he's confident he'll track his employer down, but for what real purpose? Jimmy learns that Marvin has taken the ill-gotten gains from the insurance fraud and used them to create a gambling casino and hotel in a remote part of the country with an ex-Cambodian general Kaspar warns Jimmy to distrust. But there appear to be some members of the Russian mob also looking for the elusive Marvin, and Jimmy barely has time to fall in love with the ravishing Sophie, an American art restorer (Natascha McEhlone) before tracking Marvin down, forcing a confrontation neither man wants nor profits from….   

Yes, it’s all a bit preposterous, but Dillion coaxes excellent performances from his international cast, wrapping them in images of life on the edges of a seedy criminal underbelly that’s consistently credible and ominous. Dillon pulls off that indispensable element in this kind of yarn, (making the good guys nearly indistinguishable from the bad ones) placing them in an environment of such sinister construction the audience can suspend judgment on the motivations involved. Like George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Dillon’s also smart enough to cast himself as neither more important nor better than his scummy peers.

I look forward to seeing Natascha McEhlone in a role worthy of her sophisticated beauty and obvious intelligence; her appearance in Laurel Canyon hinted at untapped capability, but that part, like this one, isn't really central to the plot. James Caan continues to invest his work with a quiet authority only hinted at in much of his earlier work, and Depardieu nearly steals this picture with his whiskey-soaked hotel proprietor, so jaded by the lost souls he serves in his saloon that he insists on dispensing any violence in his establishment in order to minimize any mess he'll have to clean up. 

Dillon has never been more than an interesting character actor, and his screen presence here is appropriate, even if Sophie's attraction to him remains the hardest part of the film to accept. But with a supporting cast of quietly menacing hard cases, newsreel- like footage of Third World poverty and the casual depiction of violent people capable of almost any human outrage, the fledgling director effectively creates a world Joseph Conrad would have been proud to call his own. 

The verdict? A strong first effort, but not for the faint of heart--or stomach.   

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