Reviewed: Compliance directed by Craig Zobel

Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy star in this unsettling indie thriller.

Every time there is a column or survey which concludes that the world no longer needs its critics, I feel a little less at home in the world. I make use of criticism all the time. Aviator longa, vita brevis, I always say. Or at least I will now.

Compliance, by Craig Zobel, is a film about a prank phone call made to a fast food restaurant. The caller claims to be a police officer, and instructs the store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) to strip-search a young female employee (Dreama Walker) whom he claims stole money from a customer. Eager to please, Sandra – by a long stretch the most nuanced character in the film – is compliant. She forces the young cashier to undress and confiscates her clothes. When “Officer Daniels” asks her to draft in her half-drunk fiancée, she conforms again. The victim falls silent. The inevitable catastrophe is set it motion.

Compliance repeatedly flaunts its authenticity. The preamble reminds us of the experiments by Stanley Milgrim, who aimed to provide objective confirmation that human beings will inflict horrors upon their neighbours when instructed to do so by a figure of authority. “INSPIRED BY REAL EVENTS” flashes across the screen. Zobel establishes a believable setting and collection of characters amid the smoke and grease of a fast food chain, then proceeds to stretch that credulity across 90 unsettling minutes.

As Sandra becomes instrumental in the captivity, strip-search, degradation and eventual assault of the 19-year-old Becky, it becomes clear the film is less interested in locating culpability, and more in the tedious destruction of a young woman's dignity. The narrative end game is clear from the trailer – or the first time our mystery caller uses one of many phone sex clichés: “What is she wearing right now … describe it to me”. Waiting for Godot was never this depressing. The question of culpability when all acting agents are – to some degree – compliant in the crime, identifies a grey area in jurisprudence and throws into relief our need to please authority, whatever the cost.

The problem lies with the execution. The film misfires. The undressing of Becky is made all the more excruciating due to the predictability of seeing a middle-aged men placed opposite a semi-virginal adolescent: “Pink is my new thing,” Becky explains to a colleague. Sadly, barely ten minutes are given over to exploring the moral and legal complexity of the crime. Other than the visual triggers which suggest the caller could be anyone – the “Dad” mug on his desk, the suburban kitchenette – we learn nothing of his deeper motives.

As press junkets go, only Bruce Willis and Kathryn Bigelow have had less fun than Zobel during the last six months. Half of the six-hundred-person audience at the London Film Festival walked out of the film. Time called it “Sundance torture porn”. When Simon Mayo asked Zobel why his leading lady had to be so "statuesque", he fumbled. “I don’t really understand that note,” he said. “I tried to cast the very best actor”.

Cinema works by capturing images and manipulating the audience's gaze. It is both an art form and an industry: a medium with degrees of exploitation at its core. Mid-way through Compliance the prank caller tells Becky she needs to become like an actress, and do exactly as she is directed. As I ditched my ticket stub and headed into the cold, the irony was not lost on me. Few films make clearer the ugly side of what they do.

Dreama Walker as Becky in Craig Zobel's Compliance.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era