SXSW 2012 Review: COMPLIANCE Presents Cheap, Dishonest Thrills

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SXSW 2012 Review: COMPLIANCE Presents Cheap, Dishonest Thrills

An interesting thing happened while I was viewing Compliance. It's something that might be unique to a festival viewing experience, but it nonetheless brings a few of the film's problems to the forefront. Let me explain: This feature from writer/director Craig Zobel is based on true events, and there is even an opening title card that announces it as such. However, due to lack of sleep and dehydration, I promptly forgot about this a little more than five minutes into the proceedings. As such, I spent most of the movie growing increasingly irritated that Zobel was expecting audiences to swallow the premise that so many people would behave in such a blindly idiotic fashion. Then, somewhere around the third act break, I remembered this story actually happened.

For the similarly forgetful, allow me to refresh your memory. Back in 2004, a man named David Stewart was arrested in Panama City, FL, in connection with a series of prank calls to fast food restaurants around the country, in which he had allegedly impersonated a police officer and convinced managers to detain and strip search female employees that he accused of theft. Compliance, which takes several creative liberties with its script, does not focus on the Stewart-inspired caller character (identified here as Officer Daniels and played with moderate success by Pat Healey), nor the victim of the interrogation (Dreama Walker), nor even Sandra, the daft manager who detained her (Ann Dowd). Instead, the story belongs to the abuse itself, and walks us, in excruciating near real-time, through the chain of events, growing more and more tedious and predictable with each passing minute. If the unbridled stupidity and gullibility of Americans is so interesting, it must be asked, why not just make a documentary?

The answer, of course, is that documentaries typically don't allow for much in the way of titillating, exploitative footage. In lieu of any kind of real character development, Zobel instead treats the audience to a dizzying array of voyeuristic and tasteless shots of Ms. Walker in various states of undress and simulated sexual acts. Yes, it can be argued that the audience is meant to be made uncomfortable in order to properly recreate the shame and horror that the victims of these crimes must have felt, but absent any insight as to who Becky is, the fetishizing of her pain and trauma is cheap, hollow, and boring. The film is presumably aiming to shock and get under the skin, but it really only irritates, prompting much eye-rolling and finger-tapping as it continues to brazenly insist that it has something to say.

Of course, the audience is kept abreast of just how shocked and dutifully horrified they should feel by an overwrought score that often lays over static images of the squalid restaurant, meant, perhaps to evoke a sense of empathy with the conditions of blue-collar America. Again, this conceit might have worked if we were given any reason to care about any of the parties involved, but instead it only serves as an obvious smokescreen, designed to convince us that we're watching something less insipid than third-rate pornography. It's assumed that the film is meant to get under the skin and shock, but in reality, it does little more than irritate due to its brazen insistence that it has something to say.

At the end of the day, Compliance amounts to little more than an artfully shot, competently acted re-telling of old headlines. It's a shame, because there's a lot to pull from here. More concern with Sandra might have yielded a fascinating look at the nature of authority, and how it affects the disenfranchised. As is, Compliance is a collection of cheap thrills, stretched long past their breaking point and dressed up as thoughtful commentary in a fashion that is both dishonest and insulting.

Compliance had its local premiere at SXSW on Monday. It screens again tomorrow and on Saturday.

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Craig ZobelAnn DowdMatt ServittoDreama WalkerPat HealyBiographyCrimeDrama

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SXSW - COMPLIANCE - screening information and more

More about Compliance

Doggedly_InaneMarch 15, 2012 4:02 PM

Mr. Jarzemsky,

I think your headline promises more 'Cheap, Dishonest Thrills' than COMPLIANCE delivers. You're like a carnival barker inviting people into your tent to see the wolfboy, only to reveal a kid with faux fur taped to his face. But you've already driven traffic to your site so who cares, right?

Where to begin? Hmmm... For starters the 'dizzying array of voyeuristic and tasteless shots of Ms. Walker in various states of undress and simulated sexual acts' of which you speak is really only a few seconds of screen time. The acts and actual nudity are either barely glimpsed or completely unseen, merely suggested.

Perhaps your ' lack of sleep and dehydration' is to blame for your confusion, thus contributing to your upset and charges of 'fetishizing' the pain and trauma of Ms. Walker's character. The film does nothing of the sort. I think you'll find that the majority of audiences viewing it will agree. And perhaps there is something in yourself that needs to be examined. Or maybe you just need to see the movie again when you are not dehydrated and sleep deprived. Your assumptions about filmmaker's intent lead me to the assumption that you were hungover. I apologize profusely if I'm wrong. But if I'm right, that would be what we call 'irresponsible journalism.'

The fact that you 'spent most of the movie growing increasingly irritated that Zobel was expecting audiences to swallow the premise' only highlights your own ignorance, as the film blatantly scrawls BASED ON REAL EVENTS across the screen in giant block letters at the beginning. So the fact that you were basing your opinion of the film on the idea that it was purely fiction is, again, irresponsible on your part. You should really go back and view it with a clear head and pay attention this time.

You ask 'Why not make a documentary?' Might that not be more exploitative? Digging into the lives of the real people whose trauma inspired the events of the film? In a sense, making them relive it? I don't have the answer. I'm only asking the questions. But if we're examining behavior and not real people, it seems fiction based on real events would be more revealing and less invasive to the victims.

If you think the performances of Ms. Dowd and Ms. Walker show 'no real character development,' I don't know what to say. Both roles are deftly performed, emotionally rich and detailed and written with both an understanding of female interpersonal relationships and a sense of powerlessness that women feel both in the workplace and otherwise. The absolute anguish and heartbreak, as well as humanity, of these two women is palpable in nearly every frame.

I can only guess that your initial reaction is an emotional one. It's fair. It's an emotionally upsetting movie. I ask you to watch it again, if you can tolerate it. You may feel the same way but I'm guessing once you've gotten past your own feelings about what was upsetting you and your unpleasant physical state, you can appreciate the film's artistry and what it has to say.

Your charges that the film is 'third-rate pornography' are, frankly, baseless and far more 'dishonest and insulting' than anything contained in the film itself. The fact that you viewed it as such suggests you were aroused or, in your own words, 'titillated' by a rape. I find that vastly more disturbing than anything portrayed on screen in COMPLIANCE.

Here's my opinion: The movie worked on you. You were upset by it because even though it doesn't point its finger at you 'Funny Games'-style, it provoked a response that indicted you. You found the abuse and rape of a young girl stimulating and that provoked guilt and anger in you. The movie made its point: We all might do the same thing. We all might just be capable of heinous acts under the right, or wrong, circumstances. Think about that for a moment. I'm not calling you a pervert or deranged. We all have thoughts that never see the light of day, are never acted upon thankfully. We are all complicit in one way or another in despicable acts major and minor at some point in our lives. But to accuse such a thoughtful and humane examination of these ideas of 'exploitation' is offensive and wrong-headed.

Do yourself and your readers a favor: Go back and watch it again with your critical faculties intact. When you begin a review explaining that you weren't feeling well and it left you confused and physically ill, you lose all credibility. You aren't reviewing a movie, you're reliving an emotional reaction to things that just aren't in the work of art but bubbling under the surface of your own self. That's a perfectly valid reaction to a work of art. But you're a critic. You have a responsibility to your readers to view the films under optimum conditions.

You're entitled to your opinion, of course. But your brain was fogged and your emotions got the best of you. You're wrong. And that's just my opinion.

Major_RagerMarch 15, 2012 11:01 PM

Hahaha This fucking guy.

Peter MartinMarch 15, 2012 11:48 PM

As Managing Editor of Twitch, I accept responsibility for the headline, which I wrote -- Mr. Jarzemsky did not. And the opening crawl does not state: "BASED ON REAL EVENTS," it states: "INSPIRED BY REAL EVENTS."
Thanks for your comment.

Doggedly_InaneMarch 16, 2012 12:35 AM

But otherwise I'm pretty dead-on, huh?

Peter MartinMarch 16, 2012 12:43 AM

You are welcome to express your own views.

Ard VijnMarch 16, 2012 5:36 AM

I always love it when readers tell us how to write reviews. Gives me a chance to explain to readers how to read them.

In this case, say I'm a reader who wants to know about "Compliance" who reads this review. What I might spot is that it is (quoting straight from the review) "an artfully shot, competently acted re-telling of old headlines" but that the reviewer was disappointed in the approach used and felt that the subject was rendered unbelievable despite being inspired by true events. That is clearly an opinion: it would be hard to state that as a fact.

What you are saying is that the reviewer had no right to put his opinion in the article because you suspect he wasn't in his right senses. You gather that from his own statement that he suffered from "lack of sleep and dehydration". At least, that's what you wrote. My suspicion is that you think the reviewer is not in his right senses because he happens to disagree with you.
And that is just... ouch.

The points you raised were eloquently stated and therefore may seem more valid than they actually are. You seriously think the reviewer would have had a different opinion if he didn't have this "lack of sleep and dehydration"?
Think about that.

As Peter Martin said: you are welcome to your own views. But my view is that you don't need to be so upset when you encounter a different one.
And stating that a review sucks because "the writer was drunk or anyway out of his mind and Twitch spiced up the article just to pull more readers", no matter how much more eloquently you put it, won't help people feel different about "Compliance". At least one regular reader was very much amused. Several others think you are involved with the film's production somehow.

You know what might help people feel different about "Compliance" though? The part in your comment where you explained why in your opinion Ms. Dowd and Ms. Walker did a fine job, why in your opinion the film gave a valid depiction of the events, and that you were impressed with how it made the audience feel about the issues involved. That's where you got me interested.

In fact, without the reviewer-bashing but with more of your opinions about the film, we might even have been able to run your account as a counter-review. Stranger things have happened at Twitch and it wouldn't have been the first time either.
Just a thought for the future perhaps.

oorangwildeMarch 16, 2012 8:55 AM

"If the unbridled stupidity and gullibility of Americans is so interesting, it must be asked, why not just make a documentary?

The answer, of course, is that documentaries typically don't allow for much in the way of titillating, exploitative footage."

A very quick google search reveals that this isn't true in this case. There is security camera footage of the whole event, and it is more graphic than what is actually shown in Compliance.

Doggedly_InaneMarch 16, 2012 1:58 PM

Mr. Vijn,

You made some valid points. However, lack of sleep and dehydration are known to be highly effective distorters of one's perceptions and manipulators of one's emotions. If you don't believe me, google it. I don't hear you defending the reviewer's actions. He shouldn't be hungover when he has a job to do. Although, I hear Roger Ebert did that for years. Mr. Jarzemsky, however, is no Roger Ebert.

I don't know where you got that I think 'the reviewer had no right to put his opinion in the article.' A quick scan of what I wrote will show you that I said nothing of the sort and that I stated several times that he was entitled to his opinion but I think he's wrong. But at least you had the good sense to not put that into quotes. Let's go over another thing you quoted me as having said that I had not said. You see, when you put quotes(Which are these things ") around something, it is meant to be a direct quote of the person you are citing. Just for future reference. Although you are a great writer of film, why would you need my advice?

"the writer was drunk or anyway out of his mind and Twitch spiced up the article just to pull more readers" This is attributed to me? Nice try. Again, irresponsible journalism. You guys are prone to hyperbole. And your assumption that I was somehow 'upset' by the review is wrong. How would you assess that from reading something I wrote?

Mr. Jarzemsky, whom I believe I have treated with respect although I disagree with his views, clearly states that he was upset by the film. I never called him 'drunk.' I suspected he was hungover, which is what 'dehydrated and lack of sleep' is code for, especially at film festivals. ESPECIALLY at SXSW. C'mon, we all know this. Again, I apologized if I was wrong in my assumptions which is more than you have done. Nobody, not you or Mr. Jarzemsky or anyone else, has contradicted this yet in all of the defenses of his review. So I have had the chance to 'think about that.' I still hold it to be true. I never said Twitch 'spiced up the review.' I said the headline was far more sensationalistic than anything in the film. And what do you know? That headline has been re-tweeted, reblogged and reprinted all over the WWW. Mr. Martin admitted he wrote the headline, presumably for that very reason, and there you go. So I hold to that opinion as well.

Also, where are these 'several others' who believe me to be involved in the film's production? That's a hasty conclusion. Where was this conclusion arrived upon?

I don't think I'm bashing anyone and I'm not a film reviewer. Hence my listing in the comments section. I appreciate your offer to run my commentary on your site but it doesn't interest me. Just a fan, along with many others, of COMPLIANCE and film writing. I enjoy reading Twitch from time to time.

I prefer to keep my anonymity because I don't want to get personal. You may think I got personal with Mr. Jarzemsky. I believe when a reviewer reveals personal details like he was dehydrated and sleep-deprived and it confused him and then goes on to review the movie anyway, I have the right to personally question that. I, myself, would have waited until I was feeling better and given the film another chance, which is what I hope Mr. Jarzemsky does. In fact, that's what I did when I was upset by the film upon first viewing it. Because clearly it was well-made but something upset me about it. I found I felt differently upon a second viewing.

Reviews are, and always have been, as much about the person writing them as the movie they are writing about. In this case, Mr. Jarzemsky reveals much more about himself than any of the actual content in COMPLIANCE. And that's just my opinion.

Mike765March 16, 2012 2:15 PM

I have to second what oorangwilde said, documentaries typically DO allow plenty of titillating, exploitative footage. In fact, that is more often than not why the documentary format is chosen, because horrific real footage exists and is presented as factual evidence. In the case of Compliance, the director seems to have opted for a narrative feature for the exact reason of toning done the graphic nature and instead letting the shots guide the viewer's conclusions instead of out right forcing them. Also, I would like to ask Mr. Jarwenski to point out what he meant by the director taking creative liberties because the review doesn't specify and as someone who finds the film and the real events both interesting and terrible I would like to know what changes, if any, were made or if Mr. Jarwenski was saying something other than what he intended.
I admit that upon viewing the film, like Mr. Jarzemski, it slipped my mind that this was inspired by real events, however, I attribute this to captivating filmmaking. The movie managed to grab my attention in such a manner that even knowing this actually happened wasn't enough to stop the shock of what I had seen. It makes the experience much more powerful. Also, I think many people overlook the decision to not focus solely on one person's story in Compliance, after all is a theme of the movie not blame? By allowing ample screen time for each character -- leading to excellent performances all around -- I think the movie asks the same questions we ask each character, is this your fault? Why didn't you do something? Why were you not aware of the situation? What happens next is we begin to ask ourselves what we would have done and the movie truly shines when we realize that the film suggests maybe we wouldn't be the glorious hero that recognizes evil and reacts with infallible morals with no hesitation.
Compliance is a shocking film, but I think Mr. Jarwenski is a bit overzealous in assuming it was made simply to cause noise. I think we are all overlooking the quality of the product before us as we tend to do with many films that may have subject matter we do not prefer. The shots are excellent, the music in my opinion is grabbing and unique, as a suspense thriller the pacing is well thought out, the acting is honest and realistic, and as evidenced by this review, other reviews, and the following comments, the film has achieved something few films can but desperately want to -- it has a stirred up something in the viewer that leaves with them as they exit the theater. That is masterful execution. That is what defines quality film making.

Peter MartinMarch 16, 2012 5:26 PM

If you have attended SXSW, then you may be aware that MANY people suffer from dehydratation and lack of sleep during the festival -- including myself -- and it has NOTHING to do with being drunk or hungover.

Most attendees must dash between screenings, stay up late watching (and many times writing) about movies, and then doing it all again the next day. Add to that the weather conditions: It has been warm and humid in between the rain in Austin this week. We do our best to be fair about everything we see and take the responsibility seriously.

I felt Mr. Jarzemsky explained his views well in the review, even though my opinion of the film differs from his and, obviously, from yours. You are, of course, welcome to criticize either the film or the reviewer; that's what the comments section is for, so our readers can express their views.

To paraphrase you, Doggedly_Inane, 'comments are, and always have been, as much about the person writing them as the movie or reviewer they are writing about.'

And for the record, Mr. Jarzemsky was not "hungover" during the screening.

ToddMarch 16, 2012 6:06 PM

I'm inclined to agree with Doggedly insofar as I'd recommend that John watch the movie again when he's able to be a bit more alert. That isn't a dig, but some of his reactions to elements of the film -- such as its supposed exploitative nudity and sex -- while perfectly legitimate if he's offended by them, aren't accurately representative of what's in the film. There's minimal, only purposeful nudity and to my memory (from when I saw it at Sundance) no sex at all in the film. I'd also argue that although it's taken from actual events, it's not sensationalistic at all, nor does it let the characters off for their irresponsible or downright terrible behavior.
That said, the film was deeply polarizing at Sundance and it's obvious it will continue to do so going forward, and if you're offended or didn't enjoy it or anything else, fair enough. But it does have a lot more to say about its subject than mere prurience, which is primarily why I'd suggest he see the film another time, especially now that he knows what it's about, and knowing more cosnciously it's based on a true story.

Doggedly_InaneMarch 16, 2012 6:27 PM

Fair enough. I don't think I have anything else to add. Thanks.

Peter MartinMarch 17, 2012 1:44 AM

From my more recent viewing, Todd, I can confirm that sexual activity is depicted, albeit very briefly and obliquely. For me, the film stirred up very strong, contradictory feelings, and I think that Mr. Zobel's decision to conclude the film in the way that he does only adds to those feelings.

ToddMarch 17, 2012 3:24 AM

Fair enough, Peter. Regarding its sexual content, I remember nudity but I think it's telling that I honestly can't recall depiction of any sexual act, instead remembering how strongly discomfortable I felt emotionally while watching these characters do these things. But I also think (and you seem to agree, unless I'm misunderstanding) that those contradictory feelings are a result of purposeful ambiguity, not directorial uncertainty or lack of consideration -- that ultimately there is thought and direct motivation in the choices which John ascribes to cheap exploitation or even a pornographical intent.
Regardless, I don't mean to suggest that I think he's wrong for disliking the film, or his review is valueless because I disagree with it. Rather, I think it's a fascinating and thought-provoking film that may deserve more thought than John gave it, hence engaging in what I hope is taken as a respectful discussion.