City of Ghosts

(2003) ** R
116 min. distributer. Director: Matt Dillon. Cast: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Natascha McElhone, Gerard Depardieu, Sereyvuth Kem.

Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts could just as easily have gone to the cable graveyard. Dillon's debut as director and screenwriter (with Barry Gifford) has the familiarly haphazard feel of a director trying out training wheels on unpaved roads; worse, the lurching narrative has far too little momentum to propel the film to its destination. With this complicated but unsatisfying Southeast Asian noir, Dillon proves to have a good eye but a tin ear.

Dillon also stars, as Jimmy Cremmins, a morally ambiguous agent of Capable Trust Insurance. Cremmins sold a slew of soon-to-be hurricane victims faux policies (whoops), and when the heat starts asking questions, he slinks off to Cambodia to find his slippery boss, Marvin (James Caan). To get to Marvin, Jimmy has to contend with a slimy middleman named Kaspar (the increasingly typecast Stellan Skarsgård) and a rogue's gallery of movie eccentrics who seem to have stepped out of Wild at Heart, David Lynch's film version of Gifford's best-known novel. Among the weirdos is Gerard Depardieu as Emile, proprietor of a seedy Phnom Penh bar-hotel. For good measure, Dillon and Gifford add Natasha McElhone, woefully underdeveloped as a restoration expert who fancies Jimmy.

In fact, City of Ghosts is a sort of mystery-adventure with a late-detonating twist providing some motivation for Jimmy. Prior to that, Jimmy is something less than an anti-hero, with no apparent perspective; in him, the audience has no rooting interest or even understanding. After that, the story is largely irredeemable, done in partly by awkward editing and a murky soundtrack, but mostly by a pervasive and palpable sense of disconnect.

The story gets easily, and perhaps thankfully, sidetracked by its seedy, gleefully sinister details: a boy's singing delivery of an ominous bag exemplifies the threat behind the story's cruel criminal dealing. While not too obviously stealing, Dillon occasionally evokes with his alternatingly colorful and dark visuals the waking and sleeping dream power of Lynch: no small feat (plus, in a bit reminiscent of Dean Stockwell's lip-synching in Blue Velvet, Caan sings Cambodian karaoke). Still, if City of Ghosts has flavor, it lacks consistency.

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