City of Ghosts | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
In City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon's debut as a director and co-writer (with Barry Gifford), the haunts of the title are the blood-rouge history of Cambodia and the suffering it left behind: a population of poor, diseased, hopeless (but not dispirited) people, freely exploited by American, European and neo-Russian capitalists who have come to share their generous free enterprise and costly corruption.

But the spirit of Graham Greene -- or perhaps, more fairly, of ersatz Greene, channeled through Conrad's by-now-too-familiar heart of darkness -- inhabits Dillon's film as well, creating a somewhat pleasant sensation, albeit one without the full satisfying melancholy, lassitude, politics and moral weight of the master, and with a rather more rosy conclusion (followed by a rendition of "Both Sides Now" in Khmer).

City of Ghosts opens in the devastating swirl of Hurricane Gabriel and then jumps to New York City, where the FBI wants to know why an insurance company has no money to make good on its policies. This perplexes and disturbs Jimmy (Dillon), a salesman who tells the FBI that he got his job through a classified ad and never actually met the fellow who owns the company.

The feds believe his lie, which leaves the veteran young con man free to travel to Cambodia to catch up with his way-offshore paterfamilias, Marvin (James Caan), a successful larcenist with whom Jimmy has had family ties since the age of 9. Jimmy, who's ripe for redemption (like any good Greene anti-hero), undertakes this peril partly to catch up with his magnetic mentor, and partly to tell Marvin that he just can't do it anymore. A corrupt enterprise is one thing, but robbing people of everything they own is too much for his burgeoning conscience.

Once in Phnom Penh, Jimmy gets help from Sok, a good-natured family man who ferries him around town on a cyclo (a rickshaw with a bicycle attached); and Sophie (Natascha McElhone), a British woman working to help the struggling masses. He also relies on two less trustworthy foreigners: Emile (Gérard Depardieu), a bellicose bar owner; and Kaspar (Stellan StarsgÃ¥rd), an associate of Marvin's from Bangkok whose fiancée is a recovering hooker who begins to seduce Jimmy the moment Kaspar introduces them.

Speckled with lacunae in plot and character, City of Ghosts is still fairly impressive escapist cinema, with myriad interesting atmospheric details along its overly complicated road to dusty death. The dialogue is tart in a pulpy style: After Jimmy gets beat up in a dark alley, Sophie coolly observes, "You seem like the wrong-place, wrong-time type." The themes are hackneyed, but no less relevant just because we've been there and done that. And while Dillon should probably have cast a more nuanced actor to play Jimmy, his work as a director/writer in City of Ghosts is handsomely intrepid, especially coming from a guy with nothing else quite like this on his résumé.

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