UNCSA grad Craig Zobel’s Compliance an exercise in paranoia, Trishna misses

by Mark Burger

Compliance is the latest feature from writer/director Craig Zobel, a graduate of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem and longtime collaborator of filmmaker and fellow alum David Gordon Green’s (an executive producer here), who approaches the  story with a clinical, voyeuristic, almost documentary-like approach.

At its best, Compliance is unsettling and acutely uncomfortable — which it’s precisely designed to be. Not a lot of laughs here, although a generous dose of dark irony.

An average day at an ordinary fastfood joint goes haywire when the telephone rings and the caller, identifying himself as “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy), asks to speak to the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd). It seems that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has been reported for stealing. Officer Daniels asks Sandra to keep Becky there until he arrives, and to conduct a search of her person for the missing money. Ever the law-abiding citizen, Sandra complies — even when he insists that she conduct a strip-search of Becky, who repeatedly says she’s innocent and has no idea what the officer is talking about.

Through verbal manipulation and intimidation, Becky is subjected to further indignities, all perfectly legal, according to Officer Daniels. That no one questions the officer as to his motives might strike some audiences as stretching credibility to the breaking point — are people this gullible? — yet the opening credits trumpet that the story is “inspired by true events.” (This doesn’t exactly engender much faith in one’s fellow man.)

The story’s confines of time and place are rendered with extreme confidence by Zobel, in appropriately claustrophobic terms, and told in a fat-free 90-minute running time. About midway through, however, there’s a revelation that feels as if it comes too early in the story and seems almost uncertain in its placement within the proceedings.

It wouldn’t be fair to specifically divulge this twist, but suffice to say that Officer Daniels is a much more interesting and threatening character when he’s a disembodied voice, when he’s only heard and not seen. That’s not a criticism of Healy’s performance, which is chilling in its matter-of-factness.

The other performances are no less effective, with particularly brave work by Walker and an award-winning turn by Dowd. Bill Camp (as Sandra’s boyfriend), Philip Ettinger (as a coworker with common sense) and James McCaffrey (as a detective) also register strongly.

Zobel displays an ability to manufacture tension and unease in an ordinary, everyday setting. Having relatively unknown actors in the pivotal roles — although that could well change, given their performances here — amplifies the randomness of the characters’ collective dilemma. They’re ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It could happen to anyone. And it has.

Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is the filmmaker’s latest attempt to adapt Thomas Hardy to the screen, having previously made the well-acted but depressing Jude (based on Jude the Obscure) in 1996, followed four years later by The Claim (based on The Mayor of Castorbridge), a misfire that inexplicably moved the action to a 19th century California gold-rush town, featured an odd international cast including Milla Jovovich, Sarah Polley, Wes Bentley, Nastassja Kinski and Peter Mullan.

Trishna, based on Tess of the D’urbervilles and set in present-day India, unfortunately recalls The Claim in its inability to successfully update the story. Winterbottom is nothing if not ambitious, but this ranks as one of his most misbegotten efforts to date. The resonance of the original story is all but lost.

Frieda Pinto stars in the title role, a tragic heroine who loves neither wisely or well. Her initially passionate but ultimately destructive love affair with Jay (Riz Ahmed) proves her undoing. He’s worldly and wealthy, she is neither. He will grow weary of her just when she needs him most.

Hardy’s work isn’t renowned for being upbeat (at all), but this seems even more lugubrious and heavy-handed than necessary. Pinto is luminous even under these circumstances, but Ahmid barely registers. At times, they almost appear to be acting in different movies, and Ahmid’s occasional descents into histrionics feels as out of place as just about everything else here. As Jay’s wise but blind father — no symbolism there, eh? — Om Puri has little difficulty dominating their scenes together, but he’s not around very long.

There are some splashes of color and a few cogent points about India’s contemporary culture, but not enough of either to recommend Trishna. Stick with the book. (In English and Hindi with English subtitles) Trishna will be screened 6 pm Thursday at A/perture cinemas, 311 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem.

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