Sunday, September 2, 2012

Relative Truths

267) Compliance (2012) Dir: Craig Zobel Date Released: August 17, 2012 Date Seen: August 25, 2012 Rating: 1.5/5

274) The Tall Man (2012) Dir: Pascal Laugier Date Released: August 31, 2012 Date Seen: August 31, 2012 Rating: 3.5/5

I joked on Facebook that some intrepid film programmer (cough, I say cough) should pair Compliance and The Tall Man together in a double feature that's guaranteed to please nobody. I feel like if you like one of these two films, you're bound to hate the other. Just a hunch I have. Anyway, I myself hate Compliance, but am intrigued by The Tall Man. Look, I'm not that stupid: I know that they're two essentially different film, but they do both provoke their audiences with loaded questions about the relative morality of human behavior. 

Also, both Compliance and The Tall Man begin with Kubrick-ian intertitles that state unequivocally: these events are true. They are true in Compliance in the most tediously literal sense: what viewers see is a dramatization of events as they transpired. Between hatefully stupid scenes where shots of a deep fat frier are used to relate just how tense events are, we see an incredibly cruel (but true!) prank play out at great length and are left to judge whether or not we, as one character suggests in the film's last scene, would in fact behave similarly under the same circumstances. The Tall Man also nakedly asks viewers in its concluding scene to weigh in on its central provocation. Does kidnapping a child and whisking them away from their abusive biological family a good thing when you consider that the child's surrogate family is loving, well-to-do and can provide for them in ways that their biolgoical family cannot? 

In spite of how loaded that question is, I respond more to it than the one at the heart of Compliance (How complicit are the fast food employees that were involved in this terrible prank?) simply because I feel Pascal Laugier is a better provocateur than Craig Zobel is. Laugier's scenario may be top-heavy but he directs several scenes so well that I was sucked in almost in spite of myself. Zobel's film by contrast constantly presents a horrifying true-crime scenario and does it in such a way that I never felt involved in judging anyone but him. More to the point, while Zobel's un-insightful and myopic presentation of events invites judgment, it reveals its horror movies-style intentions during interstitial scenes of fries being put in the frier, oil simmering, bubbles forming on the surface of the fry pit and then customers eating said fries. Really, guys? This isn't exactly a cutting cultural critique, though it desperately wants to be seen that way.

What drives me nuts about Compliance is that it is so materially fixated on the events as Zobel wants them to be considered that viewers are not allowed any kind of substantive perspective on said events. Some characters come and go throughout the narrative but only show up again when it's time for them to say or do something the presumably implicates them further. This is most apparent when Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the fast food restaurant where Becky (Dreama Walker) was raped because of a surreal (but true!) prank phone call, leaves Becky in the hands of her woulda-been fiance Van (Bill Camp). While Van is manipulating Becky at the behest of the sandwich-making "Officer" Daniels (Pat Healy), Sandra's gone. She's out of the picture because in that moment, she doesn't matter as much as the film's most infamous act. Pardon me for saying this but: people who complained about the depravity of Killer Joe's fried chicken scene but didn't balk at this scene are fucking nuts.

Sandra's selective absence is a real cop-out. Zobel is trying to provoke me as a viewer by making me aware that while I'm watching events, I can't do anything about it. We know things that Van and co. do not: Officer Daniels is making sandwiches and is not with a witness to Becky's supposed crime. This revelation is dropped about a third of the way through the film, and it irrevocably alters the way we see the characters and their actions. Even if you didn't know what was going to happen before you sat down for Compliance, you now at least know enough to be properly incensed by its events. And that's exactly the way Zobel likes his audience: knowing a little, but never enough to think about what they're looking at.

By contrast, Laugier sets up an entire milieu within the opening 20 minutes of The Tall Man. What do we know? Through chintzy but appropriately, almost-film noir-worthy voiceover narration we find out that a local kid has gone missing, that this isn't the first time that it's happened, that the locals of a broke mining community have given up hope and just accepted this as life. It's "neither good nor bad," a point that is perhaps un-necessarily over-emphasized but is just much shown as it is told through the aforementioned voiceover. After all, we see the community, not just in the streets but in the local diner. I love this diner scene: some people at the bar drink their coffee while one local drinks his beer. They swap sympathy and information. Bear in mind: it's presumably sometime in the morning, so it's impressive that the guy that's drinking his beer is not presented glibly as a lush or is off-his-nut drunk. He just drinks his drink, and even gets to clink his bottle with a visiting investigator's glass without embarrassment. Neither good nor bad.

From this basic set-up, Laugier (as a scenarist) really does over-play his hand. Like several of Wes Craven's films before it, The Tall Man is about how deceptively easy it is to judge the merits of a community and the environment that fosters their worst behavior, like domestic abuse, when you look at them from a distance. This theoretically intriguing sentiment often seems pat within the context of the film's events. A twist occurs about midway, maybe even later, in the film so SPOILER SPOILER AWOOGA SPOILER but Jessica Biel, the urbane village doctor, is in fact the person kidnapping the town's children. By making Biel's character, who is made out to be the presumably civilizing force of progressive good in the town in a couple of introductory scenes, a kidnapper with warped but essentially good intentions, Laugier makes his film's provocative premise too easy to shrug off. 

But unlike the way that Zobel presents the central crime in Compliance, Laugier makes a point of more fully interrogating his film's subject (to a finite point; I wish there was more about the kidnapped kids' life in the city) in The Tall Man. The scene where Biel's character breaks down when confronted by one of the parents of the kids she tried to abduct is especially effective. Biel's dialogue isn't that great but the way that the scene is shot and her performance: wow. I was similarly impressed by the scene that precedes the film's hokey coda. Laugier gives us a crane shot of the city where the kidnapped miners' children are presumably being reared by surrogate families. There is a genuine sense of mystery and fear in this scene (thought maybe that's just the fog and the beautiful digital photography at work), one that makes it a little obvious who Laugier isn't rooting for in the end. But wow, that shot: it's impressive for the way it gives us vital context without cramming it down viewers' throats or trying to disingenuously employ a "just the facts, ma'am" approach to hide a lack of insight into Laugier's characters' behavior. The same can't be said for Zobel and Compliance. Fuck that movie.

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