Man Abroad 

Matt Dillon takes on Cambodia in City of Ghosts.

Matt Dillon learned his lesson early: Suck up to the Hollywood fat cats, and you'll keep working. From his adolescent launch in the troubled teen flick, Over the Edge, to dalliances with Francis Ford Coppola, Garry Marshall, Gene Hackman, and Michael Douglas, the actor has been everybody's boy. Now, as star, co-writer, and director of City of Ghosts, he's taking the lion's share of responsibility for a feature film for the first time. One might say he's become his own man.

Basically, this is another stranger-in-a-strange-land yarn, but in terms of atmosphere, the director goes to great lengths to tart up the threadbare paradigm. As Jimmy Cremmins, a slick nobody insurance broker, Dillon convincingly delivers his character's inner and outer journeys, which range from Big Apple ennui to Cambodian exotica. His transition begins immediately, as a hurricane in the southern United States brings to bear all the bogus coverages sold by his overseas higher-up, Marvin (later revealed to be James Caan in typical grunty mode). When the FBI strongly advises Jimmy to surrender his passport throughout their investigation, he catches the first breeze to Bangkok in search of Marvin, and the music on the soundtrack just keeps getting better.

This might not seem like a priority to some, but really, City of Ghosts features one of the coolest soundtracks of the year. Some credit is due to composer Tyler Bates of the rock band Pet, but there's a long list of original recordings from artists Chan Chaya, Pen Ran, Choun Malai, and others. From pretty little feasts of gamelan and fiddle to deft bursts of concertina and funky Eastern techno, the sounds are as impressive as the visuals (and given the lavish frames of cinematographer Jim Denault, that's saying a lot). At the movie's end, Dengue Fever's weird, wonderful take on Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" even heals one's damaged ears after the damnable karaoke tune burped up by Caan. Well, almost.

The plot, as conceived by co-screenwriters Dillon and Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), is fairly routine, which is perhaps the movie's biggest weakness. Jimmy basically wanders the East in search of Marvin, encountering harsh realities and questing after the high maintenance moll (delivered by Natascha McElhone as the epitome of British chilliness) until he finds out that Marvin isn't what he'd hoped for, forcing him to reclaim his life on his own terms. Serviceable, you could say.

In Bangkok, Jimmy meets Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard), another associate of Marvin's whose flirty Thai concubine marks him as the first of many grotesque ex-pats littering the landscape ("I'll make a lady out of her," he vows unconvincingly, and the effect is the same as writing "LOSER" across his own forehead). Kaspar tells Jimmy that Marvin is somewhere in the vicinity of Phnom Penh, and before we know it, Jimmy's in the Kingdom of Cambodia, forging a friendship with a capricious yet world-weary cyclo driver named Sok (Sereyvuth Kem, the film's big discovery). West meets East, fun meets danger, and the movie completely eclipses dippy recent fare like The Beach, landing much closer to Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American in terms of quality and overall style.

Either most amusing or most disturbing (you decide) is good ol' Gerard Depardieu as Emile, proprietor of the movie's central bar and fleabag hotel. This man has issued a lot of bombast in his time, but here he sets a new standard, huffing and puffing and blowing the house down. It's almost as if his character from Green Card -- the one who shouted down his vegetarian foil as a "cucumber!" -- has returned with a vengeance. The man lives very large throughout the movie, and he's a hoot.

The other characters are all a bit sketchier, and this could be due to an actor sitting in the director's chair, juggling too much. Refreshingly, Dillon does not fall into the trap of lingering on his own profundity or leaving his movie too long for enjoyment (it's smartly cut by Howard E. Smith, again, with an emphasis on local atmosphere), but he does stumble a bit. Apart from Depardieu's blustery caricature, all the Westerners in the film come across as types rather than fleshly souls, and no amount of dirty-dealin' or death-defyin' can conceal their underwritten natures; the Paternal Heavy and the Girl Who Loves Art are not much more intriguing than the Mischievous Monkey.

That said, City of Ghosts is still one of the richest movies to come along in awhile, rife with local talent (real Buddhist monks, Cambodian midget comedian Loto, many others) and oozing an exotic sense of history like the sweaty, peeling walls of local temples. Overall, Dillon has scored at the helm. Haunting and wholly engrossing his film is not, but a valiant and adventurous first feature it most definitely is.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Movie Review

  • Black Cinema

    Fifteen Black-themed films you should've already seen.
    • Jun 10, 2020
  • A Star is Bored

    Coming soon to a screen near you: your own Covid-19-themed horror feature
    • May 27, 2020
  • Crossing the Streams

    From the new releases everyone's talking about to the cult classics they should be, here are five things to stream and skip this week.
    • Apr 22, 2020
  • More »

Author Archives

  • Dorkula

    Blade confronts the ultimate vampire, and geeks everywhere rejoice.
    • Dec 8, 2004
  • Call Him Al

    An epic story turns human -- and fallible -- in Oliver Stone's Alexander.
    • Dec 1, 2004
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation