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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Compliance

Craig Zobel, who was last at Sundance in 2007 with Great World of Sound, a sharply directed and acted film about a record producing company scam, is back at Sundance this year with a film about a different sort of scam, Compliance, an equally sharp examination of what happens when Sandra, a fast food restaurant manager, receives a phone call from a police officer informing her that one of her young employees, Becky, has been accused of stealing from a customer’s purse and must be detained.

It’s a stressful day for Sandra, one that started with the discovery of a freezer left open and over a thousand dollars of food lost, and the looming possibility of a “secret shopper” quality control visitor, and perhaps that strain contributes to all that unfolds over the next 80 or so minutes of utterly riveting screen time as Sandra complies with the increasingly bizarre requests made by the the caller. And what happens in the course of this story would be unbelievable – if it wasn’t all based on a true case of a McDonald’s manager and employee in Kentucky.

Zobel builds on solid, sympathetic performances by Dreama Walker as Becky and Ann Dowd as Sandra as he weaves this decidedly unsettling tale that’s really about how easily a person can be drawn into complicit obedience to a perceived authority figure, and in doing so commit acts that degrade another human being, even as their conscience and gut instinct should be screaming at them to stop. A friend commented over lunch after today’s screening that this is what the Nazis understood, the way that average people will blindly go along with authority, how they’ll harm others while making the excuse that they themselves were only following orders. It’s easy enough while watching this intensely uncomfortable film to judge these people and think that no one could possibly be so gullible; then we learn at the end that there were over 70 real cases, it makes you just shake your head in despair at the things we humans are capable of.

Compliance has generated a fair degree of controversy here at Sundance, but personally I found it more fascinating than deliberately antagonistic. The story is engrossing on its own merits, in part because you can’t believe what you’re seeing, but also because Zobel does a superb job of building dramatic tension as things escalate from bad to worse. Some terrific editing and cinematography choices effectively guide the tone and tension, as Zobel takes us back and forth between Becky’s plight in the office and the normal, bustling routine of customers coming and going, food bought and consumed, and Becky’s fellow employees going about the routine of their jobs, all the while mostly unaware of what’s happening to their friend and coworker. Zobel also uses a great many insert shots to break the tension at just the right moments, giving us a much-needed break from the dramatic tension and isolation of the office.

It would have been easy to go over the top as things progress in the story, but Zobel is restrained when he needs to be, creating just enough edginess to make the audience increasingly uncomfortable, without crossing the line into our own voyeurism of the unfolding events as exploitation. It’s a fine line, but he manages to walk it. Compliance is by no means an easy film to watch, but it is very, very good.

2 Responses to “Sundance Review: Compliance”

  1. Paul D/Stella says:

    Anyone who has a hard time believing how far things go, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgCSps6KgdY.

  2. Jannie Grey says:

    I would say it takes heart and real conviction to sit through the entire movie as things keep on getting worse and worse. Really hard hitting movie. Most controversial of the year i think.

    Jannie

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas