City of Ghosts (October 22/03)
There's no denying that Matt Dillon, making his debut here as a director, has a real eye for what looks aesthetically pleasing. Set in Cambodia, City of Ghosts is shrouded in fog and mystery; the film is probably more effective as a travelogue than anything else. Though the movie is always interesting to look at, Dillon (along with co-writer Barry Gifford) has neglected to include either a storyline worth following or characters worth rooting for.
In addition to directing and writing, Dillon's also cast himself in the central role. Jimmy is a slick insurance agent who finds his agency under investigation by the FBI. Though he's told not to leave the country, Jimmy heads to Cambodia to hook up with his mentor and boss, Marvin (James Caan). But things become far more complicated than Jimmy ever expected, as he begins crossing paths with a variety of shifty characters - including a French hotel owner (Gerard Depardieu) and a beautiful American archeologist (Natascha McElhone).
As The Hollywood Reporter has already noted, City of Ghosts "drips with atmosphere" - that much is true, but atmosphere alone isn't enough to keep things moving. Dillon does a fantastic job of establishing this little village, to the point where it'd be easy enough to travel there and feel at home. He's peppered the movie with local actors (presumably), and their inclusion certainly contributes to the air of authenticity. But as effectively as Dillon sets up the situation and locale, he falters in creating even a single compelling character. Certainly Jimmy isn't intriguing in the slightest; as played by Dillon, he's a bland figure that's neither good nor evil. The supporting cast doesn't fare much better, though Caan is admittedly quite good as this sleazy shyster. But when you've got folks like Depardieu and Stellan Skarsgard appearing in small roles, it seems odd that Dillon gives them little to work with - forcing them to fall back on mannerisms and cliches.
As if the ho-hum characters weren't bad enough, Dillon also includes a dreary plot involving a large amount of cash and a possible kidnapping. It's just the sort of pointlessly complicated storyline you'd expect from a film set in this locale, and Dillon's more concerned with making the place look ominous than with keeping the audience entertained. The movie's just dull; there's no better way to put it. There's nothing interesting about this half-baked noir plot, and without a single decent character for us to invest in emotionally, Dillon keeps us at a tremendous distance from the material.
Having said that, Dillon does hold some promise as a director. He imbues the story with a moody vibe that proves to be the most effective aspect of the film; should he give filmmaking another stab, he'd be well advised to pick stronger material.