The Dancer Upstairs (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Dancer Upstairs is the directorial debut of John Malkovich and while it is neither a great movie nor one that will fill the seats, it is a good movie and one which shows that Malkovich has a lot of talent and may become a great director of niche films if he chooses to.

It's basically a political thriller in the manner of Costa-Gavras, in that it tries to show how ordinary life goes on in the midst of cataclysmic historical events, and how small personal issues interweave with matters of global significance. Interestingly, it is also a standard cops-and-robbers movie about police procedure. How can that be? Think about it. The two co-exist in a disintegrating society. A South American country is rocked with signs of an impending revolution. Martial law is declared. Yet in the middle of all this, people do not stay huddled in their homes, as they might in a declared war. The middle class wives still assemble in their book clubs, the little girls still go to school and dance classes, people go to work, teenagers go on dates, petty thieves keep on picking pockets, corrupt cops shake down local businessmen, and the starving try to fill their bellies. Life goes on normally in many ways. One of the greatest challenges in such a situation is for the civilian police force to maintain a semblance of legal order amidst the military rule. What happens when someone's daughter is raped or someone's store is robbed? The army is not equipped to investigate crime, so the police officers must continue fulfilling their responsibilities. Of course, whenever the Army chooses to interfere, it will, but the policemen still do they best they can.

The story is a fictionalization of the capture of the infamous Guzman, the leader of The Shining Path in Peru. Javier Bardem plays a completely uncorrupt police captain who is simply tracking down a murderer with proper police procedure, consisting of hard work and analysis. He wants to arrest the man quietly and get him off the streets. The Army and El Presidente have a different view of the case. They believe that the murderer is a terrorist and a revolutionary, and want to capture him publicly for maximum political gain. Both sides are correct. In fact, Bardem's tendency to treat the investigation as a straight murder case causes him to overlook certain elements that make a revolutionary special, especially the fact that a revolutionary is a special kind of murderer, one with the support of a sizeable bloc of the population, possibly even including people very close to a police captain.

In the midst of the chaos of Martial Law, Bardem seems like an outsider. He plays a man of intellect, a man of complete restraint in his speech and facial reactions, a man completely in control of emotional reactions and body language. He is an outsider in his own culture. In fact, Bardem's loneliness is the strongest undercurrent in the film. He's an outsider wherever he goes, not just in the police force. He's an honest man in an corrupt and entrepreneurial profession, even though his last three paychecks have bounced.  He's a man of reason in a world of emotional outbursts. He's a man who settles matters through the law in a world which settles most matters with violence. He's a man who stays in his country and is consistently underappreciated, even though his wife obviously wants a nice middle-class existence in Miami. He's a deep thinker married to a beautiful, sweet, but totally superficial woman. In a cunning society in which the upper classes connive for power, he has no interest in acquiring power, even when his heroism and efficiency give him a chance to be President. The only people he feels comfortable with are his daughter and her ballet teacher, a fact which causes him to start falling in love with the dancer, thus eventually causing himself even greater sadness.

Javier Bardem did a great job in this film. He is a broad, passionate, expressive, visceral actor who not only had to stifle all of that to play a man 180 degrees away from his own personality, but also had to do it in a language which he has not yet fully mastered. His credible and sympathetic performance is really a triumph of professionalism.

John Malkovich brought the exact elements to this story that you would expect. It is mature, subtle, soft-spoken, slow-moving and quietly menacing - pretty much like Malkovich himself. It also uses the photography brilliantly to show a society with many strata and a land with a richly varied geography. 


Laura Morante shows one breast in the shower.

A terrorist appears in a see-through blouse during an impersonation of a performance artist. (Actress unidentified)

DVD info from Amazon

  • Director and Actor commentary by John Malkovich and Javier Bardem

  • Sundance Channel - Journeys with Malkovich

  • Making-of Featurette

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

Although the story is too slow and subtle to appeal to mass audiences hungry for action, it may appeal to you as an elegantly composed study of a society walking a tightrope between order and chaos. I generally like political thrillers, and I often like police procedurals, so I was predisposed to be interested, and you may have to weigh that into your evaluation of what I'm saying, but I liked this movie a great deal. It builds very slowly, but the overall impact is quite moving, and I ended up staring at the credits sadly, as one sometimes does when a movie works effectively with emotions.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA panel consensus: about three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4

  • General UK consensus: three stars. Daily Mail 7/10, Daily Telegraph 6/10, Independent 8/10, The Guardian 9/10, The Times 9/10, The Sun 7/10, The Express 7/10, BBC 4/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.0/10, Yahoo voters say "B".
  • Box Office Mojo. $2.4 million domestic box. Arthouse distribution (no more than 152 theaters).


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Recommended  - as long as you remember it's a special interest film, and only for a small number of you, those who do not need every film to be a cartoon filled with broad characterizations, rapid movement, and stylized violence.

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