Archive for the Psychological Thrillers Category

TRANCE (2013)

Posted in 2013, Crime Films, Criminal Masterminds, Danny Boyle Movies, Enigmatic Films, Femme Fatales, Gangsters!, LL Soares Reviews, Mind Experiments!, Psychological Thrillers, Rosario Dawson with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2013 by knifefighter

TRANCE (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Trance-2013-Movie-Poster1-e1359499787294

Danny Boyle has become a director who a lot of people equate with quality product. My favorite movie of his remains TRAINSPOTTING, which was a breath of fresh air when it came out in 1996, but  before and after that he made such memorable films as SHALLOW GRAVE (1994), 28 DAYS LATER (2002), SUNSHINE (2007), SLUMDOG MILLIONARE (2008), and 127 HOURS (2010), the latter of which had James Franco memorably cutting off his own hand after a rock climbing accident. So a new Boyle movie is usually something to look forward to. But then again, this is the same guy who also made the completely awful A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (1997), so you can’t expect a home run every time.

I had mixed feelings about TRANCE when I saw it, and continue to feel ambivalent about it in retrospect. Boyle’s new movie seems brilliant at times, and ridiculous at other times, but fairly entertaining throughout. It’s one of those movies that feels the need to be overly complicated, trying to keep the audience constantly guessing what is really happening, and these kinds of movies tend to be more tedious than riveting.

When TRANCE opens, we meet Simon (James McAvoy, who most people will remember as the young Professor Xavier in 2011’s X-MEN: FIRST CLASS), who works at an auction house in London that deals in expensive paintings. We get an interesting crash course in what employees are supposed to do in the event that there’s a robbery; how to keep priceless masterpieces out of the hands of criminals. So of course, there is a robbery for real, led by criminal mastermind, Franck (the always terrific Vincent Cassel), and Simon, who was always told not to try to be a hero in such situations, decides to be a hero, and gets cracked in the head for his troubles.

He wakes up in a hospital bed, with a case of amnesia, and an angry Franck, who wants to get his hands on Goya’s “Witches in the Air” (a wonderful painting, by the way) which has gone missing. Simon knows used to know where it was, but can’t remember anymore. So Franck takes him to a hypnotist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson, who has been in everything from KIDS, 1995, to JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, 2001, to  SIN CITY, 2005, and Tarantino’s half of GRINDHOUSE – “Death Proof,” 2007 ).

So far, so good. This one’s got a solid cast and a compelling premise.

The bad guys wire Simon up with a microphone, so they can hear his sessions and get the painting that much quicker once they learn where it is. But something goes wrong. Elizabeth gets wise to what’s going on and wants a cut of the money the painting would bring. She also plays mind games with the bad guys, demanding that they let her hypnotize them as well, to make Simon feel “less vulnerable.” And it turns out, not everyone has all their cards on the table – various characters have hidden motivations that we are not privy to at first, and things get complicated.

By the time we get to the big reveal in the last half hour, I wasn’t sure if I liked this movie or not. It went through some highs and lows getting to the big explanation, but once we get there, I was pretty satisfied with how things ultimately unravel.

McAvoy is a decent lead character, both sympathetic and unlikable in equal turns, and Cassel (who was so terrific in movies like Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE, 2002, and Darren Aronofksy’s THE BLACK SWAN, 2010) plays bad guys like this well. But the movie is easily stolen by Rosario Dawson in every scene she is in. Sexy, smart and electric on the screen, it is Dawson who ultimately won me over for this movie, and it is her character who I wanted to reach the end with all the marbles.

trance-psychological-thriller-movie-poster (1)

I still think that TRANCE is a little too complicated for its own good, and for a while there, you’re not sure if certain crosses or double-crosses are real or in the minds of characters that have been hypnotized. But for the most part, I liked this movie. I just don’t think it’s in the same league of Boyle’s best films.

If you’re a Boyle fan, or enjoy a good thriller, you should check TRANCE out. But be prepared for a bumpy ride getting to the answers.

I give it three knives out of five.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives TRANCE ~three knives.

STOKER (2013)

Posted in 2013, Family Secrets, Intense Movies, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Psychological Thrillers, Psychos, Serial Killers, Women in Horror with tags , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by knifefighter

STOKER (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Stoker-Official-Trailer

Most people who read Cinema Knife Fight regularly will recognize the name Chan-wook Park. He is the Korean director of such highly regarded films as J.S.A.: JOINT SECURITY AREA (2000), the vampire movie THIRST (2009) and his renowned “Vengeance Trilogy”: SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002),  OLDBOY (2003), and LADY VENGEANCE (2005). His new movie, STOKER, is something of a milestone, since it’s his first movie made in English. For someone known for his violent, uncompromising brand of cinema, the question that immediately springs to mind is, how much did he have to tone things down to work in America (and within the MPA’s rating system)? The answer is, not too much.

STOKER is kind of a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), with its story of a young girl and a visiting Uncle Charlie. Here, the girl’s name is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and her father has just died in a car accident. She has a strained relationship with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). And, just as they’re burying India’s father, dad’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) makes a surprise appearance and announces he is going to stay with the two women for a little visit. The thing is, Uncle Charlie is a dangerous man.

He’s also a man of mystery. He has traveled around the world and is eager to meet his niece, even though she had no clue he even existed. For some reason, India’s parents never told her about her uncle, and she finds this kind of odd, especially since Uncle Charlie is such a larger-than-life character.  With his  sunglasses, cool demeanor, and charismatic charm, Charlie is a breath of fresh air in India’s life, which has been reduced to just of her and her mother, who seems a bit “unbalanced.” Mom sleeps most of the day, drinks to excess and has mood swings. Charlie, in contrast, always seems completely in control and gives India all the attention she could want.

At first, things are strained between India and her uncle. She refuses to speak to him, gets angry when he shows up at school to give her rides home (she avoids him and takes the bus instead) and seems to regard him as an intruder. But over time, India warms to him. A very sexually charged duet on piano – a very intense scene – clinches the fact that they are destined to be co-conspirators of one kind or another. Although it’s not clear at first if he’s more interested in her mother or her.

By the time the bodies start piling up, we know Charlie for what he is, and slowly uncover his past and where he really was when he was supposedly traveling around the world. But the big question is, what is India? Is she a soul mate to Charlie, like the older man surely wants, or is she a strong-willed individual who will make the ultimate moral decisions on her own?

It doesn’t help that she feels completely isolated as the movie begins. It seems that her father, who she went on regular hunting trips with (there are taxidermied animals around the house—mostly birds that India killed), was her only friend and confidante. Her relationship with her mother is terrible. At school, she’s the “weird girl” who does well in academics, but is a complete outcast among the other kids. A group of boys who have targeted her are especially cruel. Constantly insulting her, making innuendos and basically harassing her, these boys seem more like predators than schoolmates. In one jolting scene, a school bully actually tries to punch her when she refuses to be cowed and insults him back, but his fist meets the sharp end of a pencil instead of his intended target. It seems as if India isn’t safe at school, and yet, she knows how to keep enemies at bay and survive.

When she meets a boy who defended her at school in a parking lot (an action that is in direct reaction to seeing her mother and Charlie sharing an intimate moment), even this degenerates.

So India is more than ready for someone like Charlie to step into her life and offer a way out. A different way. And while it seems enticing at first, she is bound to have reservations when she has to make real life and death decisions.

stoker-poster

While not as physically violent as the Korean films that made Chan-wook Park’s reputation, STOKER seethes with an internal violence that colors most of what we see. Speaking of which, the cinematography by Park veteran Chung-hoon Chung is pretty remarkable here. There are some strong images, like children making angels in the sand (or on their beds); a spider crawling up a nyloned leg; flowers sprayed with blood (an image that reminded me of something similar in Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, a very different kind of movie); an overhead light in a basement rocking back and forth; that all add another layer to the proceedings.

The script here is by Wentworth Miller, who is also an actor (you may remember him as Michael Scofield, one of the leads on PRISON BREAK, 2005 – 2009), and it’s a good one. Park makes it his own, though, and even if he is not proficient in English, his images transcend language.

The cast is top-notch. Nicole Kidman continues to take on quirky roles in interesting movies, when she could be appearing in more Hollywood blockbuster fare, and I enjoyed her here as the damaged mom, who finds herself competing with India for Charlie’s affections. She doesn’t seem all that broken up when her husband dies. Days later she’s playing tennis with Charlie.  But there’s something in her eyes at times, that there’s a part of her that’s crushed. Goode is suitably creepy as Uncle Charlie (he also played Ozymandias in WATCHMEN, 2009) and believable as a psycho who can seem unhinged at times, and other times is completely calm and collected, and pretty cool. But the main attraction here is Mia Wasikowska, who previously played the character  Sophie in the great HBO series, IN TREATMENT (the 2008 season),  but who is better known for playing Alice in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010). Here, she plays a tortured girl who might just have murder in her DNA, and it’s an especially brave performance.

My only complaint is that sometimes India seems a little too wrapped up in her own world. Not that I don’t think there are real girls like this, but she seems a little Wednesday Addams-ish at times. And while she is the target of cruelty from the boys at high school, just where are the girls?  In the school scenes we see, she appears to be the only girl in her school. Or rather, any other girls seem to disappear on the fringes in these scenes. Not that I would expect someone like India to have female friends, but you would think the girls in her school could be as cruel as the boys. Instead, they simply aren’t there.

And speaking of people who simply aren’t there, some characters “disappear” rather abruptly and no one seems concerned about them. A maiden aunt, Gwen Stoker (Jacki Weaver, who also played Bradley Cooper’s mom in last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) comes to visit, intending to perhaps warn the Stoker girls about delightful houseguest Charlie. It doesn’t take long before she’s among the missing, but none of the characters seem to notice or care. She’s not the most likable character, but you would think someone would at least wonder where she went.

And the title is a bit off-putting. With a title like STOKER, most people are going to assume it has something to do with author Bram Stoker, the man who gave us Dracula, and maybe vampires are involved. They’re not. And ol’ Bram has nothing to do with the storyline here, either. The family’s name could be anything, and naming them Stoker just seems too much like an annoying red herring.

stoker_ver3

Despite its flaws, I really liked this movie. It has a great cast, it looks great, and while it’s not Chan-wook Park’s most uncompromising work, it’s got enough of his DNA to make it extremely watchable. While I don’t think it’s as good as Park’s Korean films, it’s a dark piece of mischief in its own right. And where it doesn’t erupt in utter carnage the way a movie like OLDBOY does, it does have an inner violence to it. A psychological pressure, threatening to pop.

I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives STOKER ~three and a half knives.

SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

Posted in 2013, Cinema Knife Fights, Compelling Cinema, Medical Experiments!, Plot Twists, Psychological Thrillers, Steven Soderbergh, Thrillers with tags , , , , , , , on February 19, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SIDE EFFECTS (2013)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

sideeffects1

(THE SCENE: A hospital room.  MICHAEL ARRUDA , wearing a white lab coat and holding a chart, addresses a young woman.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  My chart says you’re feeling depressed.  Is that true?

WOMAN:  You’re the one holding the chart.  Shouldn’t you know what the chart says?

MA:  No, I meant, is it true that you’re depressed?

WOMAN:  Yes.  I’m depressed something awful.  It’s so bad that I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

MA:  Are you married?

WOMAN:  Yes.  Here’s a picture of my husband.  (Hands MA a picture of a shirtless hunk of a man.)

MA (looking at picture of hunky husband):  No wonder you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

WOMAN:  Can you help me?  Can you give me some pills or something?

MA:  Well, I’m supposed to, but we’re such a pill dependent society, I really wish we could try some natural remedies first.

WOMAN:  Do these natural remedies work?

MA: Well, no.  But these pills, they just have so many— side effects. (CUE dramatic music.)

WOMAN:  The last pills I took made me drowsy and I couldn’t stay awake.

MA:  Oh, that won’t happen.  My partner and associate can take care of that for you.

(Door bursts open, and L.L. SOARES enters the examination room, also wearing a lab coat.)

L.L. SOARES (looks at woman):  Is this the patient?

MA:  Yes, she’s afraid the pills will make her sleepy.

LS (leans closely into her face):  Look at me.  Take a good look at my face! (contorts his face into a horrifying scowl, causing the woman to recoil in terror.)  If you find yourself feeling sleepy, you’re gonna see my face!  Do you want to see my face?

WOMAN:  N-no.

LS: The second you start nodding off, I’ll be in your room, and you’re gonna have to deal with the likes of me!  Are you sleepy now?

WOMAN:  No!

LS:  Are the pills gonna make you sleepy later?

WOMAN:  Nooo!!!

LS: Good.  You’re cured.  You can go home now.  We’ll bill your insurance.

WOMAN:  Gee, thanks.  (Exits)

LS:  I should’ve been a doctor!

MA (shaking his head):  No, you shouldn’t.  Anyway, that was our last patient of the day.  Shall we review today’s movie?

LS:  Why, of course!  You start.  I need to wash up for this afternoon’s operation.  (starts washing blood off his hands.)

MA:  Operation?  Anyway, no matter.  Welcome folks, to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.  Today we’re reviewing SIDE EFFECTS (2013), the latest thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, and rumor has it this will be Soderbergh’s last movie, as it’s been said that he plans to retire after this.

Not sure why.  Soderbergh’s not an old guy. He just turned 50.

LS: I think he has other interests and wants to pursue things other than movies. Which is too bad, because he’s so good at it.

MA:  I don’t know.  I’m hot and cold with Soderbergh’s body of work, mostly cold.

LS:  Not everything he does it great. But he does so many different kinds of movies—he’s just really interesting. You know you’re not going to always get the same old thing with Soderbergh.

Oh, and some people may notice that SIDE EFFECTS came out in theaters a week ago in most places. We would have reviewed it earlier, but we were buried under several feet of snow last weekend in New England, and some of us even lost power.

MA:   But you can’t keep a good Cinema Knife Fighter down!  So, here we are a week later with our SIDE EFFECTS review.

LS: Anything, so long as I don’t have to review BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.

MA: SIDE EFFECTS (2013) opens with a young woman Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) getting ready to re-start her life with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, MAGIC MIKE himself), who has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for insider trading.  She should be ecstatic, right?  But she’s not.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as she finds herself dealing with serious depression, so serious that she attempts to kill herself by driving her car into a cement wall.

LS: Ouch!

MA: In the emergency room, where oddly, she has only received minor scratches and bruises, she meets psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).  When she tells him about her depression, he agrees to treat her.  He prescribes an antidepressant medication for her, and when that doesn’t work, he decides to learn more about her history by contacting her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Banks also happens to be a paid consultant for a new anti-depressant medication on the market, and he eventually puts Emily on this new medication.

One of the drawbacks of the medication is it makes Emily sleepy, and she sleepwalks.  No big deal, until the day when in a sleepwalking stupor she stabs and kills her husband.

LS: Oops, sorry honey!

MA: From this point, the movie switches gears dramatically.  First it deals with how responsible Emily may or not be for the crime, given her mental and drug induced state, and then, when the story breaks that Dr. Banks was the doctor who prescribed the medication for her, it moves towards the pressure Banks feels when suddenly everyone and their grandmother is painting him as an irresponsible psychiatrist.  Banks loses his job, his consulting gig, and eventually his wife and stepson leave him.

Finally, the film swerves yet again when Banks begins to investigate all that has happened, and begins to discover that things aren’t as they seem where his former patient is concerned.

LS: Yeah, this one definitely took some turns I wasn’t expecting. The first half or so of the movie seemed almost like a Public Service Announcement about the way this country over-prescribes medications for illnesses like depression, and how doctors are enticed by offers of big money to push specific brands. Also, you know those commercials for medications where they list side effects that go on for half an hour? That seemed like the inspiration for this movie. With all the side effects everything seems to have—it’s a wonder we trust any drugs at all.

sideeffects2

MA: SIDE EFFECTS is a thriller that had me early on but lost me midway through as it became more and more convoluted with an intricate plot that just didn’t work for me.  I liked the initial workings of the story, when it seemed this would be a tale about medicine gone wrong, and just who bears the responsibility for such a thing: the patient, the doctor who should have known better, who should have known exactly what it was he was prescribing, or the drug companies who produced the drug in the first place.  These thoughts are firmly rooted in reality.  We really are a drug dependent society, and this plot, had it remained firm to its roots, would have been a compelling drama.

But screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also penned the screenplay for CONTAGION (2011), another Soderbergh thriller I didn’t like all that much, takes it in a different direction.  People suddenly have sinister ulterior motives, and these motivations and actions become more and more farfetched, to the point where near the end of the movie, I really didn’t believe everything that was going on.  The story definitely loses credibility towards the end, and as a result, its edge.

LS: Yeah, we’re in total disagreement on this one. The first half – for me – was kind of a drag. I mean, Emily’s story was kind of interesting, but overall, I felt like I’d seen this kind of thing before, and I was worried it might become a preachy diatribe against the pharmaceutical industry. That didn’t seem all that compelling to me.

Then, when things start to change and we realize there is so much more to the story—all of this deception and the twists—and it’s really a completely different kind of movie than we thought – that’s when I started to perk and the movie hooked me. I wanted to see what was going to happen next, and how Jude Law’s Dr. Banks was going to recover his life and reputation after such a devastating event.

MA:  I didn’t find it preachy at all.  I found it interesting.  I guess I was enjoying the drama and wish it had played out that way, rather than turning into a thriller, which I found less realistic.

LS: I didn’t say it was preachy. I said, it seemed to be going in that direction. Then it didn’t.

MA: Well, another problem I had with SIDE EFFECTS is I didn’t like the characters.  Dr. Banks is probably the most likeable character in the film, but he grows less likeable as the movie goes on, as the methods he uses when he tries to clear his name are just as bad as those used by the people he’s trying to expose.

LS: I found him believable, because he based his decisions on logical reasons. His motivations made sense. This kind of thing could ruin his career completely, and yet, instead of just accepting his downfall, he is determined to do something about it, and I found that intriguing. I liked that he wasn’t completely likable. It made him seem more human to me.

MA: Emily isn’t likeable at all, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for her husband Martin who was convicted of insider trading and looks for all intents and purposes as if he’s about to follow the same path yet again.

LS: I think she’s likable early on, and kind of sad. She doesn’t stay as sympathetic, but I liked Rooney Mara’s performance.

MA: I agree with you there.  I liked Rooney Mara’s performance too.

And Jude Law is fine as Dr. Banks, but I enjoyed him more early on when I liked his character better.  Once he starts investigating Emily and her motives, he fluctuates between being obsessed and crazed. It’s hard to get excited about his efforts when he teeters on being psychologically imbalanced himself.

LS: But by seeming unbalanced it added to the dilemma. Is he a trustworthy protagonist? Should we be rooting for this guy? I liked that question mark, and I think Jude Law is, for the most part, a rather underrated actor. He’s good here.

MA: I enjoyed Rooney Mara best, and thought her performance as Emily was the strongest one in the movie.  It’s really difficult to read her.  Early on, she’s sympathetic, but later, like Law’s Dr. Banks, we’re uncertain what to make of her, and she’s less likeable because of it.  Still, it’s a strong performance, and while it’s not as compelling as her work in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) she succeeds in creating in Emily a woman who at first seems unstable but later is revealed to be very calculating.

LS: Yeah, let’s not say too much about that, but Mara is an actress to watch. I loved her in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and this role was very different, and I liked seeing her play someone so removed from Lisbeth Salander.

MA: On the other hand, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance as Dr. Victoria Siebert did nothing for me.  I didn’t buy into her character or her motivations.

LS: I disagree. I think Zeta-Jones is really a master when it comes to playing stone-cold ice queens who obviously want to control everything around them. I didn’t think her character was sympathetic, but then, she wasn’t meant to be. She was meant to be formidable, and in the scenes where Dr. Banks butts heads with her, Dr. Siebert is a believably formidable foe.

MA: She’s a corpse.  That’s how much life she gave her character.  I saw and heard her motivations, but I didn’t believe them.

Channing Tatum barely makes an impression as Emily’s husband Martin.  If anything, he succeeds in creating a character I didn’t like very much.

LS: I think Tatum is very likable as an actor, and I think that comes through here as well. But you’re right, he’s not given much to do, and it’s a mostly underwritten role.

MA: This movie did remind me somewhat of Soderbergh’s earlier effort CONTAGION.  Like that movie, there’s a disconnect here that prevents it from really resonating.  There’s also something sterile about the whole production, like a hospital room, that extinguishes any sort of passion one might feel towards its story and its characters.

LS: I didn’t see CONTAGION, but I think Soderbergh is a very capable filmmaker, whether he’s making multi-character blockbusters like TRAFFIC or smaller, tightly-wound thrillers like SIDE EFFECTS. I think he’s a really gifted director, and I hope he reconsiders his “early retirement” from the medium. I think the sometimes “sterile” feel of the movie actually added a tone and feel to the proceedings that worked for me. These are medical professionals who want to keep things “sterile” and safe for themselves, so that didn’t bother me.

MA: I enjoyed the first third of SIDE EFFECTS, but after that, the film started to lose me, as its plot became more convoluted and less believable.

LS: Yep, I think the opposite. I found the first half of the movie to be functional, but not very exciting. When things start to slowly reveal themselves, I found myself drawn into this smart, well-plotted thriller. I think a lot of our readers would really like this movie.

MA: I still say that SIDE EFFECTS starts out promising but doesn’t last, and like a medicine that doesn’t work, you won’t want to stay with it very long.

LS: I would prefer to describe it as a strong, effective medication that takes a little bit to get into your system and work. But once it’s activated, it keeps you glued to the screen.

MA: I give it two knives.

LS: I give it three knives.

MA: So that’s done. What should we do now?

LS: I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the hell out of here. Last time I checked, impersonating doctors is frowned upon.

MA (looks around):  Yeah, let’s get out of here.

(They run toward the elevator)

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives SIDE EFFECTS  ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives SIDE EFFECTS ~three knives.

COMPLIANCE (2012)

Posted in 2012, Based on a True Story, Controverisal Films, Intense Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Psychological Thrillers with tags , , , , , on September 2, 2012 by knifefighter

COMPLIANCE (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

 

It seems like every movie these days – especially horror – likes to declare it’s “based on a true story.” Yet, as we know, most of these are either based on the tiniest shred of something real (maybe a newspaper headline) exaggerated to the nth degree. Or they’re an outright lie.

So along comes COMPLIANCE, which is declares right away that it is “Based on True Events.” This time, however, it’s not an idle boast. Not only is COMPLIANCE based on a very real news story, it’s also pretty faithful to that story. Even if you’ll be scratching your head while you watch it.

A few years ago, there were a string of incidents where a man called fast food restaurants, claiming to be a cop, and getting managers and other employees to awful things, based on the “voice of authority” on the phone. COMPLIANCE is based on the most famous of these cases, and I remember the news story well. It was the kind of story you found yourself wondering, “How could anyone be so stupid?” But these people aren’t necessarily stupid (well, some of them are); they’ve just been trained since childhood to obey authority, just like most of us have, and it’s so engrained in them, that they react without really thinking.

COMPLIANCE begins on a Friday night at a fast food joint called ChickWich, that specializes in fried chicken sandwiches. Friday is one of their busiest nights, and the crew at this particular restaurant are understaffed and overworked. Enter franchise manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), who’s having a lousy day. Someone left the freezer open the night before, thawing out (and ruining) over a thousand dollars worth of food, and everyone is rude to her, including her staff. I’m sure this isn’t anything new for an older woman who is in charge of a workplace, and we feel for her right away.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets manipulated by a prank caller pretending to be a police officer in COMPLIANCE.

The other main character here is Becky (Dreama Walker), a nineteen year old cashier who’s cute and perky. She’s worried that Sandra thinks she left the freezer open, and she’s scared of losing her job.

With these things in place, along with a very hectic work environment, Sandra gets a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He says that he is sitting with a customer who claims that Becky stole money from her purse. He explains that he is in the middle of another case right now, and can’t come there right away, but Becky will be arrested and locked up once he can. In the meantime, can Selena do a few things to help his investigation? He also claims to have her superior on another line, and that the man has said she should cooperate.

Frazzled by her workload, depressed about the freezer, and eager to please a voice of authority, Sandra is more than happy to help out. This involves looking through Becky’s pockets, her purse, and eventually asking her to remove her clothes so that Selena can look through them for the stolen money.

When Becky gets undressed, Sandra asks one her female assistant manager, Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), to enter the room, since she asserts that this is company policy during a search (something Officer Daniels doesn’t argue with). As this continues, Sandra makes it clear that she doesn’t have the time to wait around for Daniels or any officers he may be sending, so Daniels tells her to go back to work, but is there a male employee she can have stand guard in the room until the police get there? This is when things start getting really weird.

COMPLIANCE is a small movie, but it’s well-written and pulls you into the story right away. There’s not much preamble before the phone call comes, just a quick introduction to the characters—enough for us to sympathize with them. Becky, for example, is obviously a good girl who most probably would never steal. And the caller, despite whatever lunatic things he tells the people to do, keeps everyone off guard by seeming to know everything he needs to (he does this by tricking the people on the phone into giving the information he wants, by asking just the right questions), he really does sound legitimate, and whenever his story gets a little ludicrous and anyone questions him, he pulls the “fear of jail” card, demanding that people call him “sir” and threatening to arrest anyone who doesn’t go along with him as a possible accomplice.

Is COMPLIANCE a horror film? Not really, and yet what happens in this film is horrific, and is bound to make most people squirm in their seats. I have heard that several audience members for this movie have walked out during the film, for example. As for me, I found the whole thing fascinating, especially keeping in mind that these things really happened. And the movie makes a great case for how this could have transpired.

Toward the end, we finally get to see the caller in his home (and there’s a reason he’s so good at manipulating people on the telephone), and things continue to escalate, until something truly despicable happens. All of this makes for very uncomfortable viewing, and yet not once does COMPLIANCE seem to be straining too much for believability.

Dreama Walker turns in a gutsy performance as Becky, who is victimized by a sadistic prank caller in COMPLIANCE.

A lot of people have dismissed this movie—including some critics—by saying that the movie is unbelievable. That most people would catch on earlier and prevent the situation from getting out of control. But I disagree with that assumption. I think a lot of people would react very similarly to the people in this movie do. As people in the real life case did. And it’s not all about how intelligent people are.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen people do awful things “because they’re told to.” The Nazis spring instantly to mind—the most obvious and extreme version this concept—and yet we don’t even have to go to that far. There have been several psychological test cases where people showed they were more than happy to obey orders to awful extremes. Like the Stanford Prison experiment, where subjects are broken up into groups of prisoners and guards, and as it progressed, the guards began to physically abuse the prisoners in their care. Or, even more famously, the Milgram experiment, where a psychologist tells people he is going to ask someone a question, and if they answer it incorrectly, the assistant is supposed to deliver an electric shock to them. In this experiment, the “assistants” slowly increased the “shocks” until they thought they were at an incredibly painful or almost lethal degree, yet felt justified because they were following orders.

In order to maintain order in a civilized society, we are told that there are certain authority figures we must obey. Teachers, clergy, policemen, bosses. And it is this passive response, this ingrained reflex for submission, that has allowed so many people over the years to abuse their power. Because people were afraid to say no. And COMPLIANCE shows a perfect (and perfectly awful) example of this.

This is not a pleasant film, but then again, it’s not a pleasant subject. But I found myself riveted throughout.

Craig Zobel does a great job here, writing and directing, and the cast is pretty solid, too. Ann Dowd is completely believable, and almost sympathetic (any sympathy we have for her diminishes as they story goes on, however), as the harried Sandra. Dreama Walker (currently one of the stars of the new ABC series DON’T TRUST THE B– IN APARTMENT 23) turns in a vulnerable,  gutsy performance as Becky. The rest of the cast is quite good, too, from Philip Ettinger as Kevin, a co-worker who is uncooperative with the phone caller and is the first one to actually question what’s going on, to Bill Camp as Evan, Sandra’s  fiancée, who is dragged into things when they get really ugly. And Pat Healy as the caller is quite effective playing a complete sociopath.

As we’re told in the film’s denouement, over 70 such calls were placed to (mostly) fast food restaurants in 30 states, so this was not a solitary incident. Although the case this movie is based on is the most notorious one.

I can see why some people wouldn’t like COMPLIANCE, because of its storyline, but there’s a difference between making an unpleasant film, and making a good film about unpleasant subject matter. I think Zobel handles this story well, and makes us understand how such a thing could occur.

I give it three and half knives. And if it’s playing near you, it deserves to be sought out.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives COMPLIANCE ~three and a half knives.