With his assured directorial debut The Dancer Upstairs, celebrated actor John Malkovich slyly comments on the artistry inherent in fields divergent from his own: dance, politics, terrorism. Centrally, The Dancer Upstairs bores into a Latin American detective who identifies himself--like an actor or director--as a truth-seeker. The flatfoot's investigation sweeps him off his feet and leads him, with each instructive footprint, closer to truth but far from where he ever expected to arrive.
Javier Bardem plays Detective Rejas, a man who--when the military confiscated his father's coffee farm--became a lawyer and then a policeman, saying, "I'm trying to find a more honorable way to practice the law." We first meet Rejas after his reconstitution as a government servant, working a border outpost on the day before he claims his capital-city promotion. Years later, a mostly forgotten border incident proves relevant to a series of revolutionary terrorist overtures, from dead dogs hung, with slogans, from lampposts to suicide bombings. The terrorists, orchestrated by the enigmatic Ezequiel, have a sinister theatricality in their "shock and awe" tactics, but begin to seem no more reckless or demanding than the corrupt ruling elite and the supposed efficacy of martial law.
Amidst the relentless investigation (shared with Juan Diego Botto's humorous young-buck partner), Rejas must tend to a home life with an innocent daughter and a shallow wife. His wife's unbecoming vanity and his daughter's penchant for dance unwittingly conspire to bring him together with Yolanda, the attractive, nyctophobic dance teacher who catches his fancy. Rejas's career path, investigation, and romance paint him as a fervent striver with an appointment pending with harsh reality.
Nicholas Shakespeare adapted The Dancer Upstairs from his own novel, inspired by the apprehension of the Shining Path organization in Peru. Shakespeare refuses to name the country, and though Malkovich emphatically salutes the work of docudramatist Costa-Gavras, he cares more about the toll wrought on the characters by these social stresses than the ins and outs of the politics. Laura Morante effectively plays the complicated object of Rejas's affection, but Bardem commands the screen. In one winking line characteristic of the film's dry wit, Rejas's misbehaving government superior asks him, "Do you have a feeling about that, or are you the Gary Cooper type?" Bardem's gamut of emotional shades coalesce into a gripping character study of a man capable of romantic machismo but also shuddering trepidation when he must pull his gun, intelligent focus but also naiveté, distrust but also faith.
Though the film certainly comments at least as much on the insanity of murderous terrorism as distrust of government, Shakespeare and Malkovich are more concerned with matters of mind and heart. The terrorist taunts his hunter by pointing to his brain and uttering a piercing truth: "You'll never kill this." The passion of mind compares to passion of heart and the ultimate price of the soul. Malkovich is interested in what people live for, underscored by Nina Simone's film-framing questions "What is this thing called time?...Who knows where the time goes?"
Malkovich makes all the right moves, starting with his literate approach and casting savvy and ending with a rich, lived-in tone which makes credible details which might otherwise appear suspect. José Luis Alcaine's lush photography and Mario Battistel's incisive editing prove invaluable at setting the stage (and tightening the screws in a tense climax). Malkovich's idiosyncracy--like the conceit of terrorists listening to a live Simone track between deadly actions--benefits the film by infusing an air of beautiful mystery to the woes of a country and a people. The director's final, bold stroke--a lyrical coda offering space for reflection--elevates the thriller form beyond mechanics and irony to secular humanism.