The Dancer Upstairs

A Film Review By The Mike

Rating: Rated R for strong violence, and for language.
Starring: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante
Directed By:John Malkovich

Final Grade:

The Dancer Upstairs marks the directorial debut of popular actor John Malkovich, but you’d never know it from watching the film. Malkovich’s production of Mexican political drama is gorgeous in scope and exquisite in pacing. It feels like a film by someone with a great deal of experience, never failing to look or feel the part of the classic independent drama.

Javier Bardem stars in the film as an honest, good detective, assigned to investigate the beginning of a revolution. The revolution seems to be the work of someone called Ezequiel, who is a mystery that no one knows the truth about. The only clues to his identity that the detective and his team can find are references to philosophy, along with a large number of dead dogs and cryptic messages. The film draws deep from the well of Bardem’s character’s life, helping us at every turn to understand his actions and motivations. It reminds me of several other recent films about police officers who allow themselves to be enveloped by their work, and put the task at hand ahead of everything in their life.

I think what I liked most about this film was the ease with which it moved in plot. It’s difficult to follow, especially with the strong Spanish accents of the characters involved, but it’s also a taut story that keeps the interest of the viewer. The subplots involving our lead character’s family and the other members of his police team could have been drawn upon further, but the main mystery is intriguing enough to keep us involved. It ends rather simply, but the ending fits in accordance with what our character has dealt with throughout the film. A couple of postclimactic scenes are also very welcome additions to the plot, and everything is tied up in a nice, neat package at the end.

The problem that weighs down upon the film is the development of the characters within its realm. Besides Bardem’s lead, no characters are really truly understood, nor is care taken to explain to us what these people are doing in the situations we find them in. The titular dancer, played by Laura Morante, is the most touched upon character, most visually in her relationship with the lead, but we’re never truly led to understand why she does what she does throughout the film, especially when we look back at her once the credits have rolled.

The Dancer Upstairs is also a slow film, moving its plot at the pace it feels necessary. I’m sure many will admonish the film for this pace, but to me it seemed like Malkovich knew exactly what he was doing (at least in terms of the plot) when he put each scene together. The film feels longer than its runtime of just over 2 hours, but if you allow yourself to become immersed in its web of intrigue you won’t mind.

I think I expected more out of this film than I got, but I still enjoyed it. The criminal underworld was dealt with excellently, and Bardem gave us a very convincing performance in the lead. It’s not a film that will make money, or become a classic. But if you’re looking for something deeper than the Summer blockbusters that dominate multiplexes at present, head out to a quiet little theater and check out The Dancer Upstairs. If nothing else, it’s a good step for John Malkovich, who proves that he can be successful behind the camera as well as in front of it.

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