[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
There’s been almost universal agreement at this year’s Sundance that “Compliance”—writer-director Craig Zobel’s follow-up to 2007’s indie gem “The Great World of Sound”—will make viewers angry and uncomfortable. For nearly the entire running time I certainly was. But there’s a contentious divide among those who find the film worth the challenge—as I do—and those who don’t.
The film opens on an already heightened day at a fast food chain restaurant. Someone left the freezer open overnight causing food to spoil, and the employees are expecting a visit from quality control. The bad news doesn’t end there for stressed out manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). She receives a call informing her that one of her cashiers—perky blonde Becky (Dreama Walker)—has stolen from a customer. What happens next isn’t fair to spoil, but this dramatic thriller based on true events is among the most disturbing films I’ve seen in some time.
Boasting top notch filmmaking and exceptional ensemble acting, “Compliance” has style and technique to spare. But it also, mercifully, has a strong head on its shoulders. Zobel successfully skirts exploitation and empty shock value to give us a far more nuanced portrait of deeply inhumane behavior. Characters act in massively stupid ways that are both frustrating and horrifying to watch—all backed up by details from the real-life story—but the film provokes something more profound than “Can you believe this actually happened?” incredulity.
Incredibly thorny issues of morality, responsibility, loyalty, trust and resentment are in play here, and Zobel explores the grey areas by refusing to judge or condescend to the people on screen. Every actor feels exactly right, with Dowd and Walker delivering especially compelling work.
Still, it’s worth reiterating that, due to the nature of its content, “Compliance” is very difficult to watch. The film asks you to share in the emotional and psychological abuse of its characters to gain a powerful understanding of human failings. Not everyone will appreciate the offer.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- “The Surrogate”: Also based on a true story, but one far more palatable to mass audiences, this bio-pic focuses on journalist and poet Mark O’Brien’s efforts to lose his virginity at the age of 38. It’s more complicated than it sounds because Mark (John Hawkes) is only alive due to the assistance of an iron lung. He’s not paralyzed, but he’s bedridden and his muscles barely work. His best option to help achieve his goal: kindly sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who brings tenderness and compassion as well as professionalism to her unconventional job.The third wheel in the drama is Mark’s priest (William H. Macy), an important figure due to Mark’s strict Catholic faith and the film’s interest in feelings of guilt and shame in regards to both disabilities and sex. Much of the movie is sentimental and light, with plenty of laugh lines often add to rather than undercut the awkwardness—and writer-director Ben Lewin’s craftsmanship is rarely artful.
But “The Surrogate” earns points for its sexual frankness and positivity. The strong performances from Hawkes and Hunt lend credibility and integrity to the film’s central relationship, though they’re both working above the material. However, this is one Sundance movie in no danger of disappearing without a trace after the fest. “The Surrogate” was this year’s biggest acquisition—Fox Searchlight bought the film for $6 million with obvious plans for a major Oscar campaign at year’s end. Expect significant awards buzz for both Hawkes and Hunt, and the tear-jerking film may well be in Academy voters’ Best Picture wheelhouse.
- “The Invisible War”: Documentary as horror film, Kirby Dick’s harrowing portrait of rape in the military is nearly as shocking and disturbing as “Compliance.” It’s also depressing, as woman after woman tells virtually the same story: She was raped by a fellow officer, the military authorities took little or no action (often citing lack of evidence), and the victim leaves the service while the perpetrator remains (and is usually allowed to rise through the ranks). The film’s biggest beef is with the military justice system and the major change being advocated for is to treat these cases as civilian investigations, instead of handling them inside the military (usually by people with a vested interest in keeping controversy to a minimum).
The argument is strengthened through searing indictments of military culture (women are often told or made to feel it’s their fault if they’re a victim of sexual aggression) and emotional interviews with victims and family members (two husbands of women who were raped break down in tears discussing the ongoing difficulties the crimes have caused in their marriages). Dick’s filmmaking is formulaic, but the material is undeniably powerful. It raises serious questions about what we expect, and what we can tolerate, from our armed forces.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries