The beauty of some of author Graham Greene's work - in novel form and subsequent movie adaptations - is in capturing the aura and allure - both beautiful and deadly - of the exotic locations where his stories are set. To give the reader/viewer someone with whom they can identify as a similar visitor, Greene often used the outsider-looking-in protagonist. It's a device other films have also used such as in "Apocalypse Now" and "The Year of Living Dangerously."
Actor turned director Matt Dillon ("There's Something About Mary," "Wild Things") seems to be trying to channel that in "City of Ghosts," his directorial debut. The story of a white American who flees to Cambodia to escape the authorities and search for his mentor, the film has the look and feel of Greene's work.
Yet, the script by Dillon and co-screenwriter Barry Gifford ("Dance With the Devil," "Lost Highway"), as well as the overall direction, isn't quite up to snuff with the efforts of much of the rest of the technical work.
Beyond composer Tyler Bate's ("Kingdom Come," "Get Carter") terrific locale-inducing score, production designer David Brisbin ("The Corruptor," "The Chamber") and cinematographer Jim Denault ("Real Women Have Curves," "The Believer") have captured and/or recreated the world of Cambodia so well that it literally oozes off the screen. I've never been there, but the film certainly made me feel as if I had experienced the sights, sounds, atmosphere and aura of the place.
That certainly helps a film that needs to utilize its setting to set the mood for its story of deception, mistrust and murder. Literally, none of the characters is trustworthy, which is a good thing if the script plays with that notion and gets the viewer completely wrapped up in the mystery and intrigue.
Unfortunately, all of that posturing turns out to be a whole lot of activity and effort for what essentially amounts to next to nothing that's special, memorable or unique. The "surprise" ending is far too easy to predict too early into the film. To make matters worse, neither it nor its related outcome bear enough weight to justify or equal all that preceded it.
Part of that stems from Dillon's decision to act like David Lynch and insert a hodgepodge of odd characters into the mix. While they do add some to the already established atmosphere and give parts of the film that unique, Twilight Zone type Lynch feel, all of those characters are ultimately just props that don't amount to anything.
I understand and appreciate what Dillon's trying to do with them and the rest of the film. Yet, I don't think it works that well and only helps to build up what turn out to be unfulfilled viewer expectations. The novice filmmaker also could have jettisoned some unnecessary scenes, tightened the editing (which appeared somewhat choppy, at least in our print), and worked a bit to make the continuity more cohesive.
That said, and beyond the look and feel, the best thing the film has going for it is a terrific cast and some decent performances. For better or worse, Dillon himself takes the lead role, but is good in it. The always terrific James Caan ("The Way of the Gun," "Mickey Blue Eyes") also delivers a solid performance, but isn't around long enough - considering the pivotal nature of his character - and shows up far too late.
The likes of Stellan Skarsgärd ("The Glass House," "Timecode"), Gerard Depardieu ("The Closet," "102 Dalmatians") and Sereyvuth Kem (making his debut) are all good in their respective parts. Natascha McElhone ("Solaris," "Ronin") is as beautiful and radiant as ever, but the subplot she's in is lacking and often feels tacked on. In fact, one can't help - throughout the film - but wish that the overall script were as good as the players in it.
That's not to imply that any of it's awful, but rather that it could and should have been so much better. Whether that's due to Dillon trying to wear too many hats on his first directorial outing is debatable. Whatever the case, the story never feels as if it manages to climb free of the thick atmosphere - that the film so easily and proficiently exudes -- and stand on its own. Decent, but nothing terribly exciting, "City of Ghosts" rates as a 5 out of 10.