John Malkovich's directorial debut is a lot like him: Quiet and composed on the outside, but prone to intermittent shows of gratifying perversity.
Set ambiguously in "Latin America," the movie sees a lawyer-turned-cop trying to do his job within a hopelessly corrupt system. Lt. Augustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) is under serious military pressure to ferret out "Ezequiel," an unidentified communist agitator whose followers like hanging dead animals in effigy to make their political point. They claim human victims, too Ð enough that a skittish government, fearing imminent revolution, gives Rejas a tight deadline before it assumes total control of the manhunt. Yet somehow, the lieutenant still finds the time to dally with his daughter's ballet teacher (Laura Morante), who apparently represents sweet relief from his ninnyish wife's preoccupation with nose jobs and ladies' book clubs.
Nothing all that surprising happens in "Dancer," wherein the biggest mystery is figuring out whether you're watching a political thriller masquerading as a crime drama, or a crime drama masquerading as a political thriller. But it's an admirably modest film, bereft of the excesses that tend to pile up when actors first wander behind the camera. Background music is minimal, and Bardem readily adopts the Raul Julia mantle of gentle machismo.
Lurking behind every corner, though, are jolts of unsettling violence and flashes of sly humor, some of which occur almost simultaneously. One particular atrocity inspires an outraged cry of, "How dare you kill a theatrical group?" Malkovich's pals in the Steppenwolf troupe are just going to die over that one.