"City of Ghosts" is the directorial debut of actor Matt Dillon, although I doubt many would know that, largely because I'm not sure anyone actually heard about the film when it got a truly tiny theatrical release earlier this year (the 17.5m film only earned back a little less than $350,000 on, at most, 20 screens). It's really unfortunate that not many got to see the film; while not award-worthy, it's an atmospheric drama that has great characters, settings and a certain flavor that's quite involving.
In the film, Dillon plays Jimmy, a New York insurance agent who arrives at the job one day to find federal agents awaiting him. He finds that his partner, Marvin (James Caan), ran off with all the cash - a particularly bad and tragic problem, since a devastating hurricane has caused a wave of claims to be filed.
Against the warnings of the government agents, Jimmy sets off to Cambodia, where he meets up with another operator, Casper (Stellan Skarsgård), who knows Marvin's whereabouts. Once he arrives at Phnom Penh, he's given shelter by a volatile hotel owner (Gerard Depardeau) and a love interest in the form of Natascha McElhone, an actress who can't seem to help but be glamorous in the midst of a gritty movie.
We eventually find out that Marvin has plans to use the money to build a massive resort and casino in Phnom Penh, but that doesn't really seem to be the focus of the movie. Dillon delights in finding dead ends for the characters, having oddball supporting characters come out of the woodwork and embrace the interesting locales (Jim Denault's cinematography is tough, yet beautiful).
This is all pretty interesting for a little while, and the occasionally somewhat Carter Burwell-esque score by Tyler Bates achieves the kind of mood that Dillon seems to be looking for. The film reaches a point, however, where a sort of rambling, scruffy atmosphere just becomes rambling. Dillon, with some editing, could have taken a good 20-25 minutes out of the picture to make it seem somewhat less unfocused.
Yet, I can't say I was ever too bored. Dillon has certainly rounded up a series of terrific actors and although I can't say that anyone here turns in their finest work, the grouping of Skarsgård, Dillon, Caan and McElhone results in good chemistry and performances that connect well. They're good enough to even get over some of the more mediocre dialogue in the screenplay from Dillon and frequent David Lynch collaborator Barry Gifford.
"City of Ghosts" does start to lose its footing in the middle with some unnecessary scenes and noticably slow stretches, but it does pick up towards the end and, overall, I enjoyed it. It's a nifty little neo-noir debut for Dillon, with potential bad guys and eccentric characters around every corner.
VIDEO: Despite not being much of a success at the box office, MGM has still put together a fine effort for "City of Ghosts". The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen here and, aside from a few issues, looks awfully good. Sharpness and detail are first-rate, as the picture almost always appeared well-defined and detailed, with fine details such as individual hairs visible. Even dimly-lit night sequences looked crisp.
However, some minor issues did appear. Slight edge enhancement was visible in a couple of scenes, but hardly was noticable. A speck or two turned up on the print used, but otherwise, the film was free of debris, grain or other issues. No compression artifacts were spotted. The film's earthy color palette looked particularly strong throughout the film, with fine saturation and no smearing, even in a few nightclub sequences.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation was less pleasing, however. Although I didn't expect anything aggressive from a largely dialogue-driven feature, I was hoping for more atmosphere from the surrounds. Background sounds, people on the street and maybe bird/insects could have been heard from the rear speakers. Audio quality is perfectly fine, though - dialogue remains clear, as does the score.
EXTRAS: Commentary by director Dillon and writer Gifford; the film's trailer.
Final Thoughts: Dillon's directorial debut could have been tighter, but it's got great atmosphere, locations and I found a good portion of it to be involving. Although it failed to have much impact at the box office, fans of the actor should check it out as a rental. MGM's DVD is a nice effort, with strong image quality and a couple of supplements.
The Film ***