"You reach a point where you can't change. You're the way you're going
to be for the rest of you're god damned life."
City of Ghosts is Matt Dillon's (There's Something About Mary, Wild Things) screenwriting and directing debut. Inspired by a trip to South East Asia in the 1990s, this film is the first to have been shot almost entirely in Cambodia since 1964. Endorsed as the official selection of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, City of Ghosts is the story of a con man and his redemption on the surface and a scrutiny of the human spirit underneath.
Facts of the Case
Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon) comes under FBI investigation for insurance fraud when claims come pouring in after a devastating hurricane. The FBI informs Jimmy that the mysterious Mr. Nagle, the head of the company, does not exist. While they currently believe that Jimmy is just another victim of the scam, they do ask him to relinquish his passport since he won't be leaving the country anyway. Of course, after he returns home, Jimmy leaves straight for Bangkok, Thailand where he meets another partner, Joseph Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgård Ronin). Jimmy learns from Kaspar that Marvin (James Caan, Misery), AKA Mr. Nagle, is currently living in Cambodia. Chasing Marvin through Cambodia leads Jimmy into a beautiful and exotic underworld full of violence, murder, gangs, and uncertain loyalties.
This is the superficial plotline in a nutshell. To the extremely careful viewer, the story is a well laid out sequence of events, while the more casual viewer will find a web of loyalties and friendships that seem to shift throughout the film.
The supporting cast had the potential to make or break City of Ghosts. Several of the minor characters, in the hands of the wrong actor, could have been unremarkable, undistinguished personas that passed into the film and out of our memories. This was not so. The supporting cast was well selected and brought the world of Cambodia to life. The bartender Emile (Gerard Depardieu) is one of my favorite characters in the film. In the dark setting of Phnom Penh, he serves almost as a comic relief. With the hint of a past as shady, or at least as uncertain, as the rest of the characters appearing in the film (we have no clue why he has come to Cambodia in the first place), Emile is less of a clown and more of a contrast to the criminals that have flocked to Phnom Penh.
Also worth mentioning is Sophie (Natascha McElhone, Solaris). In the traditional film noir style, two types of female characters appear: the loyal, trustworthy dame and the deceitful, deadly femme fatale (historically, the Madonna or the whore). In City of Ghosts, Sophie is the only noteworthy minor female character and also the Madonna. She is beautiful and clean, in contrast to most of the other expatriates who appear to have a layer of filth covering their skin. Unlike many of the other characters with questionable paths, Sophie and her gang of friends have come to Cambodia to restore the temples and historical sites that had been destroyed during the years of civil war. Her presence in Cambodia and her purpose for being there appear to be strong redemptive forces in Jimmy's journey.
There were several underlying themes in the City of Ghosts that made it such an amazing movie. Even though the film was shot in color, there is a sense of darkness that fits perfectly into the film noir style: the abundance of shadows; the seedy bars and brothels; the twilight shots; the presence of thick, obliterating fog. These features give the story more of a sense of desperation than any of the actors could portray on their own. We see Jimmy in a world of long shadows that close in on the soul; not only is he trying to save his friend Marvin from his own web of deception, but he is also searching for a path out of the darkness of his former life. Incidentally, the final scene in the film is shot in full sunlight. This ties nicely into the theme of redemption. In the opening scenes of the movie, we see Jimmy under an FBI interrogation. No matter the conclusion that the FBI draws from their investigation, we know that Jimmy is guilty, even if he is looking for a way out. While Jimmy journeys to save Marvin, he is also attempting to redeem himself. He is not destined to become the reformed sinner, but a new man with a past that is no longer his own.
In the dark underworld of Cambodia, there are several rays of light. During the course of the film, Sok (Sereyvuth Kem) is the perfect foil for the underworld of Cambodia. Although Sok becomes entangled in the delicate web of loyalties, if only through his friendship with Jimmy, he manages to maintain his innocence and kindness. He serves as a constant reminder to us, and to Jimmy, that money does not necessarily mean happiness. He also proves that a life of poverty does not have to destroy the innate kindness of the human spirit; although Sok has very little in the way of money and worldly possessions, he has a willingness to give more of himself then any of the other characters in the film.
In addition to Sok's portrayal of human kindness, there is another character in the film: a nameless nun who only appears in cameo. In one of the most important moments of the film, we see her in a nun's garb with a shaved head holding and then burning a picture of her younger self. This act is very representational of redemption themes in the film. The woman may have been a prostitute or had some other equally abysmal past yet, when she burns her picture, she expunges her previous existence and claims salvation as her own. This is a spark of hope: even in the underworld of Cambodia, a penitent sinner may find absolution. This supports the strongest device of the movie: resistance to change is a tragic flaw. Marvin himself spouts, "You reach a point where you can't change. You're the way you're going to be for the rest of you're god damned life." This refusal to seek absolution is the direct cause of Marvin's eventual downfall.
The picture quality in City of Ghosts is amazing. The film quality is very clear; the sequences that are grainy and poorly shot are intentional devices that enhance the story. Dillon did an amazing job editing shots and choosing images that represented his themes and brought life to the setting. The cinematography is breathtaking and really brings out the spirit of Cambodia. For the most part, the sound quality in the film was excellent and very clear. There was one particular scene where the soundtrack interfered with the dialogue. This may have been intentional on the part of Dillon and the film's editors, but I found it rather distracting. The soundtrack for the film was outstanding. Dillon did an excellent job choosing music that fleshed out the dark, desperate atmosphere and truly brought Cambodia to life.
Overall, the film had little in the way of extras. There were several trailers for films that MGM is releasing: Dead Like Me, It Runs in the Family, Bulletproof Monk, Together, and Nicholas Nickelby. The DVD contained the film's original theatrical trailer and a very insightful commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On of the key features of the storyline in City of Ghosts is the redemption of Jimmy. In the opening scenes of the movie, we learn that in addition to conning a lot of people out of a lot of money, the consequences this time have been much more severe. Whatever scams Jimmy has contributed to in the past have not caused so many to lose so much. In the role of the repenting sinner, Dillon is nowhere near convincing that he was once a sleazy con artist who lied without batting an eye. There is little to no character growth between the beginning of the movie and the end: only the journey of the repenting sinner to the redeemed sinner (at least in the eyes of the audience, not the FBI).
While the movie does take care of answering most of the questions this position poses: why did Jimmy feel he had to go to Cambodia? It does not lend any credibility to the possibility of Jimmy as a con artist. Interestingly enough, Marvin does tell Jimmy that he can't change. You can recognize that Jimmy may have probably reached that point by the end of the film (who doesn't love a reformed sinner) but it would be so much more convincing if we had seen a little more of Jimmy's past.
My last gripe is that the DVD had little in the way of extras. Several deleted scenes would have made a really nice addition.
This case is a difficult one. City of Ghosts could really have used some additional extras to really round out the film's viewing experience. On the other hand, it was an exceptional story and you may end up watching it several times.
The charges are against City of Ghosts are dropped and the DVD is free to walk out of this court. MGM pleasantly requested to add some extras to their indies. This court is adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Director's Commentary
Review content copyright © 2003 Erin Boland; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.