'Compliance' and the Rediscovered 'Wake in Fright' Depict Life Under Extreme Conditions

ABUSE OF POWER: A prank phone call goes really, really wrong in Craig Zobel’s Compliance.

ABUSE OF POWER: A prank phone call goes really, really wrong in Craig Zobel’s Compliance.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a ray of civil sunshine to customers at the small-town fast-food franchise she manages and a resolute projector of positive mental attitude to vendors and her teenage underlings. But clearly her dowdy looks and perhaps narrow mind have delivered her to middle age insecure, pinched, and somewhat hapless. She isn’t having a very good day, and it takes a turn for the worse when she takes a call from a policeman who informs her that one of her employees, lithe blonde Becky (Dreama Walker), stole money from a customer. The officer wants her to hold Becky in a back room until he gets there, and, ever eager to please her regional manager and authority in general, she complies.

Compliance (Magnolia) would be a 15-minute short without the not-uncommon quality that gives it its title. Based (alarmingly closely) on actual events, writer/director Craig Zobel’s new film aims to get at the get-along/go-along relationship we have with power, and the dangers of that dynamic. Soon the officer is asking Sandra to search Becky, then to strip-search her. Sandra obeys. As it’s a busy weekend evening at the Chickwich, Sandra hands over some of her increasingly Milgram experiment-esque duties to teen sandwich-slinger Kevin (Philip Ettinger), and even her lumpish regular-dude fiancé, Van (Bill Camp).

Shooting hand-held mostly inside a series of small, windowless rooms, Zobel captures the raw, claustrophobic feeling that makes it possible to imagine that such things might happen, as apparently they have, and Dowd is note-perfect as the desperate-to-please Sandra. But Zobel’s premise starts to run out of gas well before feature length, and while introducing the phoning-in officer (Pat Healy) onscreen gives it a narrative second stage, it also comes to make the film feel even more ickily prurient than before. What happens to Becky, and to Sandra, is so awful that it can’t help but affect audiences. Yet Zobel can’t resist adding a coda that underlines the latter’s petty nature, making for a more needlessly unpleasant aftertaste than any fast-food gutbomb. Who’s the mean spirit now?

The 1971 Australian film Wake in Fright (Image Entertainment) offers a much better choice for an evening of human-degeneration-as-entertainment. Unlike Sandra, John Grant (Gary Bond) is slim, blond, young, fashionable, and handsome, though, like her, he’s stuck in a dead-end job—one-room-schoolhouse teacher in an Australian outback town so tiny and remote that one horse would be a major civic improvement. Heading back to Sydney, the beach, and his girl for the summer holiday, Grant stops off in the slightly more bustling outback burg of Bundanyabba for the night. A few dozen beers with the locals (Wake in Fright is to suds consumption what Slapshot is to profanity) and a disastrous turn at a game of chance later and he’s penniless and stranded, dependent on rural strangers like Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance), a sinister alcoholic physician who survives on brew and kangaroo, for his next crash, crust, and can of lager.

Though only four decades old, Wake was believed lost forever until a print was rediscovered in Pittsburgh, of all places, in 2004. The new digital issue represents what a find that was. Though lumped in with the “Ozploitation” films of the ’70s, and suitably lurid in spots, Wake presents a credible drama of a man not only caught up in a backwater backwash, but also undone by internal demons brought out by the easing of societal norms—as much Under the Volcano as drive-in trash. Director Ted Kotcheff, the journeyman Canadian responsible for First Blood, also brings out a fascinating you-are-there portrait of rural Australia when it was still a frontier, where almost every establishment is lined elbow-to-elbow with burly bros pounding cans and any given evening could end in violence. (If you are squeamish about cruelty toward animals, the kangaroo hunt makes this a must-miss, though you’ll miss a scene of chaotic surrealism like you just don’t see anywhere.) Sweaty, desperate, perfectly formed, and compellingly ugly in its revelations, Wake in Fright is a most remarkable film.

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Speaking of remarkable films, 20th Century Fox recently released Elia Kazan’s 1960 film Wild River for the first time as a stand-alone DVD/Blu-ray title. This is worth noting not only because it was shot in and around Bradley County and tells an East Tennessee story. A post-accident Montgomery Clift plays a TVA employee who’s come to ease the way for a new dam that will help bring prosperity to the area but which will also flood out some of the deeply rooted residents, including a matriarch (Jo Ann Fleet) and her granddaughter (Lee Remick). Clift and Remick’s characters, of course, fall in love, complicating and heightening the tensions over the coming deluge and the changes that will come with it. Long considered something of a minor Kazan title, it is in fact enormously underrated for its clear-eyed drama and its beautiful widescreen photography.

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