John Malkovich's THE DANCER UPSTAIRS and the myth of the actor-director

The rap on actors as first-time directors is that they’re often more interested in exploring characters—and indulging cast members—than they are in telling straightforward stories. Think of slow-paced character studies like Sean Penn’s THE INDIAN RUNNER or Gary Oldman’s NIL BY MOUTH. Even Tommy Lee Jones’ modern Western THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA and veteran auteur Robert Redford’s wartime drama LIONS FOR LAMBS (both of which I’ve recently written about) favor long scenes of motivation-revealing dialogue over peppy, narrative-advancing plotting.

John Malkovich’s 2002 directorial debut, THE DANCER UPSTAIRS (airing Thursday, November 8 at 10P), flies in the face of any such stereotype. Even at a lengthy 132 minutes, the quirky character actor’s adaptation of British novelist Nicholas Shakespeare’s tale of terrorism and romance in modern-day Latin America unfolds like a tightly wound thriller. Imagine a Graham Greene novel translated by Costa-Gavras (whose seminal guerilla film STATE OF SIEGE plays on a terrorist organization’s seized videotape).

In one of his first major (mostly) English-speaking roles, Javier Bardem simmers with charisma as Agustín Rejas, an attorney-turned-policeman in an unnamed South American country who doggedly pursues “Ezekiel” (Abel Folk), the deadly leader of a Marxist revolutionary group. At the same time, the detective is falling for his preteen daughter’s alluring ballet teacher, Yolanda (Laura Morante), unaware—or is he?—that she’s in cahoots with the rebels aiming to overthrow the militaristic government.

For an actor who’s frequently gone way over the top (RED, CON AIR, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), director Malkovich keeps Bardem on a surprisingly tight leash. Only once does Rejas lose his temper, and his obsession with Yolanda remains largely unexplained, although the scenes involving his silly, cosmetics-obsessed wife (Alexandra Lencastre) give you sympathy for his wandering eye. At one point, Bardem’s character is compared to Gary Cooper, and he does project a laconic stoicism similar to the HIGH NOON icon. It’s refreshing to see Bardem play an upstanding man—aside from the adultery, but hey, it’s a macho culture!—as opposed to the bad boys he’s embodied in everything from Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA to his Oscar-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to the new 007 movie SKYFALL.

You don’t have to dig too deep into Malkovich’s biography (or filmography) to determine why he’d be drawn to turn this exotic material into his first, and sadly only, directorial effort. He’s certainly shown an interest in cultures outside our own, from his early role as a Vietnam War photographer in THE KILLING FIELDS to his longtime real-life residency in France. The story’s theatrical setting (a government official’s assassination takes place amid an avant-garde dance performance) may well have appealed to Malkovich as a veteran of Chicago’s edgy Steppenwolf Theatre Company. And although the rumored Republican recently claimed, “I’m not a political person…I haven’t voted since McGovern lost,” he also stated, “I’ve read more books about the Middle East than any journalist working in [Britain]” so he clearly has a deep and abiding interest in global policy. With its intoxicating mix of international intrigue and smoldering sexuality, THE DANCER UPSTAIRS brings fast-moving new meaning to foreign affairs.

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS is part of Sundance Channel’s THRILLER THURSDAYS. Turn off the lights and lock the front door every Thursday at 10P.