City of Ghosts
review by Nicholas Schager, 25 April 2003

There’s some beautiful scenery in Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts, a lackadaisical "thriller" about a con man’s journey into the heart of Cambodia to find the mentor who abandoned him. Photographed with a nearly somnambulistic lushness by Jim Denault (the film is the first since 1964’s adaptation of Lord Jim to be shot on location in Cambodia), Dillon’s maiden directorial voyage shares some of the dazzling visual unruliness of Apocalypse Now, with the country’s spiraling vines and dirt roads, dilapidated lodges and sun-drenched city streets sparkling as though they reflected the mysteries of nature itself. The film entrances us with images of the untamed jungle and rustic, old world town squares, transporting us through the seductive spell cast by its locale.

Were the film merely a documentary travelogue, such an effect would be more than enough to sustain one’s interest. Alas, City of Ghosts has a story, and one so meager that it appears on screen seemingly as an afterthought to the cinematographic splendor. Jimmy (Dillon) sells phony disaster insurance for his mysterious partner Marvin (James Caan), but when a hurricane decimates a town covered by the firm’s policies, the Feds come calling and Jimmy takes a surreptitious trip to Cambodia, where Marvin is rumored to be hiding out. Jimmy is a man with a blank face and no purpose in life – he wants to find Marvin, but it’s clear from his only nominally perturbed demeanor that his is not a quest for revenge or retribution. In Bangkok, he meets up with Casper (Stellan Skarsgård), one of Marvin’s untrustworthy business partners, who leads him into Phnom Penh, where he takes up residence at a ramshackle hotel owned by the wild Frenchman Emile (Gérard Depardieu).

Jimmy soon discovers Phnom Penh to be a city of duplicitous charm, with the magnificent natural wonders concealing an underbelly populated by shady businessmen and conniving thieves – not only is the traveler’s passport stolen by a barroom stranger, but his sunglasses are hoisted by a sneaky monkey that’s made a habit out of terrorizing the hotel’s patrons. With Casper’s help, Jimmy eventually finds Marvin, who is now in league with a corrupt former army general (Chalee Sankhavesa) to build a lavish casino in the heart of the wild jungle. Marvin is a notorious con man and wants Jimmy to join him in this supposedly lucrative venture, and the power Marvin wields in the country is enough to make Jimmy question whether the proposition isn’t a surefire lucrative opportunity. But after meeting a sultry archaeologist named Sophie (Natascha McElhone), our wayward protagonist begins to wonder if he can’t break free from Marvin’s influence and embark on a more fulfilling, safe, and legal life with his newfound paramour.

This dilemma is played out in countless scenes of almost absolute stasis – trying to figure out the motivation for Jimmy’s actions and behavior is a tedious chore, as Dillon’s inexpressiveness lends an overall torpor to the film’s narrative. We’re meant to understand that Jimmy is undergoing a sort of spiritual crisis, but the script (by Dillon and Barry Gifford) seems to take for granted that we’ll remain invested in characters who’ve been drawn in outline form only; even when one senses some depth of motivation or purpose, the film never allows us the proximity necessary to feel engaged in their predicament. Caan tosses his smirk around the jungle, and McElhone – with her perfect chestnut hair and coy smile – looks beguilingly appealing, but it doesn’t take long to recognize that their characters’ inner lives will remain closed off to us. The story’s aimlessness does lend an anarchic spirit to the “enveloped by the jungle” atmosphere, and the jocular chemistry between Dillon’s Jimmy and his cyclo driver sidekick Sok (newcomer Kem Sereyvuth) has a playful authenticity that sometimes distracts us from the pointlessness of Jimmy’s quest. City of Ghosts ends in a series of double-crosses and revelations, but one feels as though the entire film is a mirage, producing a beginning, middle and end without ever really offering us anything of substance save for some gorgeous backdrops.

Directed by:
Matt Dillon

Matt Dillon
James Caan
Natascha McElhone
Gérard Depardie
Kem Sereyvuth
Stellan Skarsgård
Rose Byrne
Shawn Andrews
Chalee Sankhavesa
Christopher Curry

Written by:
Matt Dillon
Barry Gifford

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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