Review – Compliance

The defence “I was only following orders”, christened by panicked Nazis at the Nuremberg trials has become synonymous with those looking to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility.

It’s a mitigation that runs through writer-director Craig Zobel’s deeply unsettling examination of the powers of authority and our  willingness to blindly obey it.

Compliance – a “deeply unsettling examination of the powers of authority”

Compliance centres on a prank phone call to an American fast food restaurant from someone claiming to be a police officer. The ‘officer’ swiftly convinces manager Sandra that young female employee Becky is responsible for stealing money from a customer’s purse. Not wishing to get into trouble and all too willing to accept her supposed guilt for the sake of an easier day, the caller convinces Sandra and then others to subject Becky to increasingly dehumanising and humiliating treatment.

Incredibly, the film is inspired by true events, specifically a 2004 incident when a man masquerading as a cop called a suburban McDonald’s and told the manager to imprison an employee he claimed was a thief and strip search her. The confused manager agreed and even drafted in her fiancé to guard her. Depressingly, this was not the only incident of its type; more than 70 similar cases were reported in 30 U.S states before someone was arrested.

If Compliance achieves nothing else, it is sure to have you shaking your head in disbelief that something like this could have been allowed to happen. Some have reacted so strongly to the film that they have walked out of screenings.

Zobel’s matter-of-fact directorial style lets the narrative play out and invites us to make our own minds up. The use of tight close-ups lends the film a fetid, claustrophobic tension; however, the decision to reveal the caller’s identity feels like a mistake. The film would have worked even more effectively, been even more stifling had it not strayed outside of the restaurant and let the audience deduce for themselves that the caller’s increasingly outrageous demands were the result of a sick prank.


Dreama Walker as the terrified Becky in Craig Zobel’s Compliance

The caller pulls the strings of his unwitting puppets from the very beginning and gets off on how far he can go. Giving only the vaguest description of the thief, Sandra does the work for him by assuming he’s talking about Becky and promising “to do everything that you need”. Meanwhile, the young victim is coerced into agreeing to the strip search when he theatens her with jail if she doesn’t comply, even going so far to persuade her to be “a good actress” to make the other staff feel more comfortable.

Ann Dowd gives a fantastic performance as the sad, weak and compliant Sandra. We can see the confusion and fear in her eyes, while still trying to exert her own authority on her young, largely apathetic workforce and keep them on side. In a society where we are told to respect our peers, Sandra believes she isn’t doing anything wrong; quite the opposite in fact, in her mind she’s doing what anyone else would do under similiar circumstances.

Fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) makes a very bad decision in Compliance

Fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) makes a very bad decision in Compliance

Zobel also draws strong performances from Dreama Walker as the terrified Becky who, like Franz Kafka’s K in The Trial is overwhelmed by circumstances of which she has no knowledge, and Bill Camp as Sandra’s acquiescent and eager-to-please boyfriend Van, who comes to realise he “did a bad thing” way too late.

Compliance, without resorting to histrionics or lectures, raises serious and worrying questions about the ease in which we can do horrible things with the best of intentions, the power of intimidation and our willingness to let someone else be the victim if it means we avoid trouble ourselves.

When the die is cast and the players believe they understand the rules, Zobel’s challenging and uncomfortable film leaves us to wonder just how long we’d be willing to let the game go on.

Review – End of Watch

Once the preserve of horror, the found footage film has spread its wings to encompass that other staple Hollywood genre; the cop thriller.

It was only a matter of time; our TV screens have been clogged up for years with such police-friendly ‘reality’ shows as Cops and Police, Camera, Action. All the while, fictional cop shows have endeavoured to become ever more authentic (minus the fruitier language), with arguably the most successful example of recent times being the acclaimed Southland.

End of Watch

End of Watch – enjoyable, but won’t stay long in the memory

In one episode of Southland, a patrolman must deal with the ramifications of punching a member of the public after it is caught on camera and broadcast online. As the episode’s opening narration states, “it’s a new age – a video age. People are always watching us [the police]. Everywhere”.

Writer-director David Ayer addresses this “new age” head-on in End of Watch. LAPD officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is filming his day-to-day official activities for a project, to the annoyance of his partner and close friend Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). To assist with this Taylor fixes tiny cameras to each of their shirts to allow for first-person filming.

Following an arrest which turns up a stash of cash and a gold-plated AK-47 (“two of the major food groups – money and guns”, Taylor states), the two investigate a Mexican drug cartel. Although urged to let it go, Taylor persuades Zavala to stay the course, but little do they realise they’ve made themselves the cartel’s most wanted.

Ayer has made a speciality of hard-bitten cop dramas, from writing stints on the Oscar-winning Training Day (2001) and under-rated Dark Blue (2002), to penning and directing the less successful Street Kings (2008); all of which dealt with police corruption, something that’s absent in End of Watch. Here the hook is the first-person filming style, described by Ayer as being akin to “watching YouTube — where something in your mind tells you this is real”.

It’s an interesting notion that at times works very effectively, especially during an edge-of-the-seat scene where Taylor and Zavala enter a burning building to save some kids. However, Ayer undermines these moments of found footage (and, in turn, the whole film) by sprinkling traditionally filmed shots in along the way (including that now ubiquitous ‘soaring above skyscrapers’ shot). You’re never sure whether you’re watching ‘real’ footage or not, which has the effect of pulling you out of the film. To make matters more confusing, when the camera is attached to the front of a gun, End of Watch resembles a first-person shooter computer game.

LAPD’s finest Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) in David ‘Training Day’ Ayer’s End of Watch

When you strip away all the pseudo-realism and gimmicks, this is a good old-fashioned buddy movie, akin to Lethal Weapon, and it’s the hugely entertaining camaraderie between Gyllenhaal and Peña that really drives the film forward.

In his most high-profile role to date, Peña is magnetic. Sure, his character fits the Latino stereotype we’ve come to expect, all hot-blooded, street smart and full of attitude, but Peña is a smart enough actor not to overplay it and instead gives a raw and entirely believable performance.

Gyllenhaal is a hard actor to pin down, but is usually at his best when dialling it down in such films as Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain. Here he delivers the full range, from bug-eyed hot-shot to measured introspection and just about carries it off. He gives as good as he gets when playing opposite Peña and it’s in the scenes when they are riding in the patrol car where both actors bring their A-game and really ignite the film. Here the dialogue really fizzes in spite of its somewhat clichéd nature (the differences between white and Mexican culture).

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets up-close-and-personal in End of Watch

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets up-close-and-personal in End of Watch

Much like the over-rated Training Day, character development is sorely missing from End of Watch. Ayer deals in black and white simplicity here, chiefly in the way the Mexican cartel gang is portrayed. With absolutely no redeeming traits, we’re left to wait patiently until they can be chalked off. Indeed, when the shifty-eyed head honcho Big Evil responds to why he’s called that by stating “’cause my evil’s big”, it’s clear Ayer isn’t exactly straining himself to make his villians memorable.

By adopting the found footage approach, Ayer has delivered a fresh take on the police drama and in Gyllenhaal and Peña has found one of its most likeable partnerships. However, like much of the content on YouTube, End of Watch won’t stay long in the memory.