'Ghosts': Matt Dillon's Haunt of Darkness

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2003

Matt Dillon's "City of Ghosts" is a triumph of place over sense. I doubt whether you'll come away with much feeling of dramatic completion, or whether you could even pass an elementary who-did-what-to-whom quiz, but you'll hasten to add Phnom Penh to your Must Never Visit list.

Is this why they call it the Third World? Man, in this movie, it doesn't look Third, it looks 17th or 27th. No commerce, no industry (other than the sex trade), no traffic, nothing but rot, pathos and disillusionment.

Say this for Dillon as a director: He really gets the there that's there. In fact, the movie is mostly about there. He loves to discover ghostly ruins, decrepit buildings, broken machines, sad men who've outlived their dreams and whose bad decisions are inscribed in the fallen fissures of their faces.

Dillon must have been reading, too, for the movie is, in its way, more a part of a literary than a cinematic tradition: It's the old one about the expats who seek to flee something or find something in a foreign capital but find only ruin and despair. I think Joseph Conrad was here just before Graham Greene, and both had a drink with Ernest Hemingway and Andre Malraux.

In this case, the weary, wary traveler to one of the world's most pathetic urban disintegrations is Jimmy (Dillon), who has fled New York in search of his mentor, Marvin (James Caan). And why has Marvin fled New York not merely to Phnom Penh but even farther beyond? Uh, Marvin's insurance company, which specialized in hurricane coverage, has just had a problem: the arrival of an actual hurricane. Now Marvin can't pay off any of the many policies he sold in the rural South because, uh, he took the money and ran. Jimmy was his frontman -- amiable, earnest, boyish, handsome and clever enough not to get caught in the mess but clearly a fellow who knows more than he tells the FBI.

As it turns out, both Jimmy and Marvin have intense relations with their consciences, though in opposing ways: Jimmy has one; Marvin murdered his and buried the body years ago. So Jimmy is seeking -- well, what? Really, not so much the money (he feels terrible about the grifted storm survivors) but some sort of coming to terms.

But you don't just drop in on Marvin. Marvin is guarded behind scams, stings and structures; he's part salesman, part con man, part father, part creep. The problem is, from one day to the next, you never know which part will predominate.

Actually, as good an actor as James Caan is, the movie is far better before he is discovered at about the halfway mark. Until then, it's just a journey down a dark road into a dark city, and the darkness is lit by some amazing sights. One is the great French actor Gerard Depardieu as Emile, a bar owner and stand-up guy in Phnom Penh. He can win fights while holding one of his many babies in his arms. And here's the cool part: He has a monkey that steals sunglasses.

Then Natascha McElhone, she of the goddess face, the eyes so big and deep you need a Pentium chip to navigate them, shows up. She's some kind of art restorer who's also mysteriously connected to local politics. Stellan Skarsgard is Kaspar, the middle-Europa refugee in a dirty white suit with too nervous a disposition. No movie set in a fallen paradise is complete without a middle-Europa refugee in a dirty white suit. Even Bo Hopkins, uncredited, makes a brief appearance, as jovially dangerous as he was all those years ago when he covered for Pike and Lyle and Tector in "The Wild Bunch." Various generals, thugs, prostitutes and freaks fill out the foreground.

Once Jimmy finally discovers Marvin, the movie whirls off into plottiness. Seems that Marvin's other partner was the Russian Mafia, and those are boys who don't like to lose money. So they're hunting for Marvin. Oh, it gets denser and denser with double crosses and murders and finally a kidnapping, where Jimmy has to rescue Marvin from his various enemies, or so he thinks. On and on it goes, where it ends only Matt Dillon truly knows.

But the movie is like a trip to Cambodia without the 87-hour plane ride shoehorned into a rack that passes for a seat. And it may be hot on-screen, and sweaty, and you're always worried that damn monkey's going to steal your shades, but in the theater it's cool and dark and fascinating.

City of Ghosts (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some violence and profanity.

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