Saturday 23 March 2013


Stripping Yarns

USA 2012
Directed by Craig Zobel
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: This review reveals things right from the outset that some people are going to feel are big spoilers.

Compliance is a film I might not have seen had it not been for the fantastic young lady who picked it out as our cinema viewing this week. As it turns out, I was pretty happy with the choice and the style of film-making on display but it’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea... including, as it happens, my multiplex companion who chose it from the array of movies on Cineworld’s website.

It's a movie which pulls you into a situation using a clever array of shot types and edits which are skillfully used to set up mini chapters and highlight certain moments for the viewer. It pretty much has no story and almost everything that happens in the film is either present or implied in the trailer. The film is all set during one night in a “Chickwich” fast food “restaurant” and tells of a group of people who are prank called and become complicit through that very long phone call, to the will of somebody pretending to be a police officer and who gets some of the employees in the restaurant to strip-search a young girl and enforce humiliating and provocative sexual acts on her before it is realised, after what must be many hours, that they have become accessories to a sexual crime.

The film is based on true events and it’s all geared up to get you to ask questions about how far these people go, why do they fall in line with an authority figure rather then start to question, a hell of a lot earlier, the things they are being told to do... and where is it that the point comes between being a victim and being an antagonist.

The male character who is called in to the restaurant to spank and then receive a highly charged sexual act from the true, young, female victim of this crime is a problem issue. He comes off in the general public’s mind, in the movie, as kind of a rapist... but the pressure he is under to assist in something which he ultimately knows must be wrong, and the fact that he has already been drinking away some of the night and is ever so slightly impaired in his thinking because of this, muddies the issue somewhat and also gives you a sense of him being as much of a victim as some of the other people in this drama.

Again, it’s all about being aware of the gravity of events and actions and being able to determine, for yourself as an individual, where such lines are crossed. And the thing about that is... everybody is different. Everybody is adhering to their own variation and spin offs an objective value system which, frankly, is never ever going to be perceived at anything other than a subjective level, and this plays into the rationale behind the events depicted in the film and certainly gives you something to talk about after the lights go up.

The performances, as you would expect with this kind of movie, are absolutely flawless and brilliant. It’s the kind of ensemble piece that independently produced US films do so well and the acting talent is helped considerably by the way the movie is shot, edited and lit. This is a piece which is designed to make you feel uncomfortable and, from what I could see of the audience and their nervous laughter in some scenes, this seems to have worked well... I think my own problem with this is I am so jaded and aware of the tricks the director is going to use to produce this kind of effect, after years of movies, that it becomes a little blunted on me to a certain extent.

Starting off with some shortish, completely static shots edited together to build up a series of establishing shots (rather than go for the obvious, long master shot to open chapters), this builds up a certain tension within the audience because the viewer is conditioned to experience release on those kinds of long shots and this film deliberately doesn’t have very many of them. It’s intense and claustrophobic and this isn’t just because the action takes place in just a couple of rooms for the most part. It’s because the director slyly shies away from allowing much of a release from the medium and close up shots throughout the course of the movie. In fact, from the moment I first saw those opening, static shots cut together, I thought of Sergei Eisenstein and his theory of the way you edit films, from his stance back in the early part of the 20th Century at the dawn of cinema, and they are kinda put together like something you might see in one of his early, Soviet propaganda works in some ways. Also, these shot sequences are very much like the quick-edit transition sequences of the early works of Darren Aronofsky... although a fair bit slower, actually, and without the heavy sound/musical punctuation.

The shots in between these little set ups are a lot longer and rely a lot on hand held, slightly moving camera to create a sense of cinema-verite which is another neat trick because, when the film gets to a place where the director really wants to highlight a point... he’ll either stop the camera dead which goes directly into the subconscious as a cinematic punctuation mark, or zoom or cut to a tighter version of that shot to lend an emphasis to it (a technique which has almost been done to death in various well-shot US science-fiction TV shows over the last ten years).

There’s also an interesting choice of shots along the way which, despite the implied documentary leanings of the “camera as recorder” set up, show an underlying sense of artistic expression which all makes for a fairly effective cocktail of styles. The enforced fellatio scene, for example, is technically off shot and implied by the tell tale signs of stress implicit in performing such acts in a non-consensual environment... and as a result, the audience naturally fill in the blanks with their own imagination and it becomes a little more raw and shocking than it would have been if the director had just recorded the graphic act on film.

There’s also a surprising sense of humour present in occasional scenes which are less implicit, but still there... such as one of the waitresses paraphrasing an obvious line of dialogue from Kevin Smith’s Clerks which made me stifle a giggle (stifle because it seemed to somehow bypass the rest of the audience, who presumably didn’t pick up on it). Although this slight underlying humour, which to be fair is very minimal, does nothing to detract from the fact that there are very few truly sympathetic characters in the mix... everybody seems to be carrying around a little piece of damage which  makes for less of a connection with many of the characters involved.

The sound design and use of music is also quite intense and ultimately brilliant. The score is very quiet and subtle in most sequences. Bearing in mind the “camera-eye” style of filming, I was surprised the director chose to have any music in there at all, but it’s actually very effective and for the most part lurks within the subconscious before being allowed to overpower the soundtrack in some key moments. It perfectly matches the visuals and the rest of the foley and makes for an enthralling combination.

So yeah, I guess my verdict is in on this one. Compliance is a somewhat challenging but extremely well made piece of cinema, which perhaps doesn’t get as raw or confrontational as it could, but delivers a highly competent and classic cinematic approach to subject manner which many would not find to their taste. If you’re a fan of the motion picture as art, you will probably appreciate the level of craftsmanship in this film... although it’s not the most entertaining piece of drama out there. Cineastes will certainly enjoy the taste and restraint shown in this one while people who are not used to this kind of approach to a subject may find themselves less than enamoured of it.

One thing I do know for sure... while I was okay with the movie in general... it’s certainly not the best “date movie”.

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