Although recent events have led many people in this country to believe that terrorism is the sort of calamity that can be wiped out by invading select countries in the Middle East, the dramatic events portrayed in The Dancer Upstairs remind us that violence and terror exist on a daily basis in poor nations around the world. But rather than serve as a political statement or a docudrama on social uprisings in Latin America (where the movie is set), this directorial debut from acclaimed actor John Malkovich presents a calculated, thoughtful character study of a police inspector who is unsure of his duty to the world and to himself. The result is a film that does not force you into sorrow or bliss or any other cathartic extreme, yet manages to remain ultimately memorable.
To set the tone, Malkovich begins by taking us on a long truck ride through the mountains of South America. The countryside is beautiful and we are treated to long, wide-angle shots of the truck weaving its way along the base of snow-capped peaks. The passengers listen quietly to a broadcast of Nina Simone babbling to an audience as she prepares to sing her next song. Everyone seems calm, if not peaceful. And then, without a word, the driver guns the engine and slams the vehicle into a policeman standing at a hillside checkpoint. It's this sort of unexpected violence that returns again and again during the first half of the movie. Children blow up their fathers, cars careen into restaurants, politicians are executed on stage in theaters. And, as Inspector Rejas (Javier Bardem) soon learns, these are just the early signs of what could end up being a much bloodier revolution for the impoverished country.
The effects of such scenes quickly add up and leave you uneasy in your seat. You begin to cringe whenever the camera lingers a bit too long on a lone child or an unattended vehicle. That the scenes are often incredibly graphic only makes things worse. But this is how terrorism works. In showing the partial faces and the gurgling blood and the dead dogs that the revolution's followers hang from lampposts as a warning to the country's political leaders, Malkovich makes us feel the same tension that grips the citizens each time they step out into the street.
Bardem, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gay writer in Before Night Falls, does a great job of showing how Rejas deals with this tension. The inspector does his job well; even though it's clear that the police force can't afford to pay him, he thinks little of working long hours and is even promoted twice for his aptitude. Yet, the job -- like all the things he does -- never seems to be a main focus for him. He softly tells his superior that he would have preferred to have been a coffee farmer, like his father, had the government not taken away his family's farm. It's as if he has been passionless ever since, and perhaps that's why he is suddenly transfixed when he meets Yolanda (Laura Morante), his daughter's dance instructor. The music that plays in one of their subsequent scenes -- Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" -- underscores the fact that Rejas thinks he has found "a way out of here." It's an escape from not only his daft, materialistic wife, but more so from the silent horror of somehow becoming the person responsible for capturing Presidente Ezequiel (Abel Folk), the madman who has been orchestrating the revolution.
I won't give away the ending, except to say that both Rejas and Yolanda hide their true occupations from one another as their relationship progresses, and that this leads to some inevitable and disastrous results. Fortunately, subtlety and nuance is Malkovich's strong suit, and he is careful not to hit viewers with overly predictable or melodramatic scenes. In fact, I suspect some viewers may feel cheated out of the moving love story or the suspenseful crime thriller or the intense political drama that The Dancer Upstairs could easily have been. The climax is just as slow and deliberate as all the scenes before it, and that is something that modern storytelling has not taught us how to respect. But it's precisely this unconventional style that gives The Dancer Upstairs its edge. Unlike much of the detritus that has been thrown on screen recently, this film stays in your head long after you've left the theater. And eventually, you begin to see additional layers to the movie that you had missed before. You begin to understand why Rejas made the decision he did, and that sticks with you until, soon, you want to see the movie again.
Malkovich and Bardem offer a commentary track on the DVD, and a pair of featurettes round out the disc.
The dancer takes a break.