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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- "City of Ghosts" drips with atmosphere.

For his feature debut as a writer-director, Matt Dillon heads into the heart of Southeast Asian darkness previously explored by such novelists as Joseph Conrad and Graham Green, not to mention a host of old movies. Dangers lurk in every shadow and down every dark passageway. Westerners connive to make a buck, but Asians outfox them at every turn. While the film was shot in Cambodia, in reality the story takes place in a mystical world spun out of old literary and cinematic works.

This is not a boring movie, though. The Asian intrigue thickens the tension as strange, often decaying sites, seedy expatriates, local eccentrics and hostility toward foreigners stoke the thriller's fire. If rolled out properly, UA should be able to cross the film over from specialty venues into mainstream theaters. You just wish there were more to the story.

Dillon, who wrote the script with Barry Gifford, plays the central role of Jimmy, a New Yorker who sells bogus insurance policies to homeowners on the East Coast. When a hurricane causes hundreds of claims to pour in against the phony policies, Jimmy becomes the focus of an FBI investigation. He has deniability on his side, but once he gets the chance, he slips away to track down the man who set up the scam, his mentor, Marvin James Caan), who is laying low in Southeast Asia.

Two things are never clear: why Jimmy takes off for Asia and what he expects to achieve when he meets up with Marvin. As a consequence, Jimmy drifts through the movie, reacting to people and events but never the film's driving force.

Jimmy arrives first in Bangkok, Thailand, where he learns that Marvin is in Cambodia. With the help of one of Marvin's "associates," Kasper (Stellan Skarsgard), he sneaks across the border and comes to Phnom Penh. He takes a shabby room in the misnamed Bellevue Hotel, run by a rough European expat, Emile Gerard Depardieu).

At the Bellevue bar across the street, Jimmy meets all sorts of characters. One steals his passport. Another -- a monkey, in fact -- steals his dark glasses. Natascha McElhone's Sophie, an archeologist who looks like a fashion model, steals his heart. Rather improbably, he finds an easygoing cyclo driver, Sok (Sereyvuth Kem), who speaks English well enough to help him navigate the capital's dangerous streets and identify the "bad people."

After a fight, a beating and other incidents never fully explained, Jimmy is summoned by Marvin. Marvin is up to his eyeballs in mischief, having run out on his Russian mob backers -- who vow to hunt him down like a dog -- and scheming with an ex-general to use the money to open a casino. This makes little sense because Cambodia is hardly a tourist Mecca (nor is this movie likely to help matters). The point of it all is to confront Jimmy with his criminal self, as reflected in Marvin's disreputable dealings, and force Jimmy to decide what kind of man he wants to be. In movie terms, does he go with Caan or McElhone? Guess how that works out?

The film makes other revelations about its characters, but given how remote they remain from us, few viewers are likely to care. The movie's genre trappings swamp the final third of the film, shoving most character concerns into the background.

At the very least, Dillon has rediscovered a great movie location. "City of Ghosts" claims to be the first Western feature to film almost entirely in Cambodia since "Lord Jim" in 1964. His technical support in what must have been arduous locations is very strong, especially David Brisbin's art direction of crumbling interiors, Jim Denault's moody cinematography and Tyler Bates' score, which incorporates Eastern elements into the music.

CITY OF GHOSTS

United Artists

A United Artists, Mainline Prods. and Banyan Tree presentation in association with Kintop Pictures

Credits:

Director: Matt Dillon

Screenwriters: Matt Dillon, Barry Gifford

Producers: Willi Baer, Michael Cerenzie, Deepak Nayar

Director of photography: Jim Denault

Production designer: David Brisbin

Music: Tyler Bates

Costume designer: Moji Sangi

Editor: Howard E. Smith

Cast:

Jimmy: Matt Dillon

Marvin: James Caan

Sophie: Natascha McElhone

Emile: Gerard Depardieu

Sok: Sereyvuth Kem

Kaspar: Stellan Skarsgard

Sabrina: Rose Byrne

Robbie: Shawn Andrews

Running time -- 117 minutes

No MPAA rating


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