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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism