Greetings again from the darkness. French journalist Anna Erelle documented her month-long correspondence with an ISIS terrorist in her 2015 book, “In the Skin of a Jihadist.” Her experience resulted in a fatwa being issued for her … basically an Islamic death sentence on her head. Based on (more like influenced by) Ms. Erelle’s story, writer-director Timur Bekmambetov (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, 2012) and co-writers Brittany Poulton and Olga Kharina bring us a movie version via computer screen storytelling.
Valene Kane (“The Fall”) stars as Amy Whittaker, a British freelance journalist with a bright idea for an important story. With so many western girls being recruited by ISIS and sold as sex slaves, Amy decides to track down a recruiter and gain intel on how the process works. She does this by creating new Facebook and Skype accounts under the fictitious name of Melody Nelson, an “almost” 20 year old new convert to Islam who just doesn’t fit in to her current world. With the beep of a new post, Melody is contacted by Bilel, a terrorist and ISIS recruiter, whose profile expertly blends cat videos with bombings and beheadings.
Bilel (Shazad Latif, “Star Trek: Discovery”) is handsome and charming. He talks the talk and walks the walk as both a terrorist and man who can seduce vulnerable young women via FaceTime. There is a lot happening on Amy’s/Melody’s screen at any given time. The pop ups come fast and frequently from her hard-nosed news editor Vick (Christine Adams, “Black Lightning”), curious best friend Kathy (Emma Cater), confused boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins), and IT specialist Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), himself the son of a Muslim. As if all that isn’t enough, YouTube videos come and go, and Melody is constantly googling the latest topic of conversation so she doesn’t give away her ruse.
Artistic license is taken with her in-the-moment research and blunders. Although Ms. Kane is strong in the role, Amy never comes across as a professional journalist on a job. She does, however, expertly play to the stresses – rent due, concerned boyfriend, social commitments, dual personas, work deadlines, and the social media chaos that comes with flirting with terrorists or “making friends with jihadists”. It’s just impossible to imagine a job like this wouldn’t find all parties better prepared and protected.
Still, the reality of young women being seduced and recruited by terrorists is quite real, and this should generate fear in every parent. I kept thinking “that wouldn’t happen”, all the while my stomach churned with the tension. It’s the reality of the threat that creates the fear, but director Bekmambetov effectively uses the online interactions to create a current and urgent scenario.
In theaters on May 14, 2021