LOS ANGELES — "Compliance" is the rare film that's caused me to do a total 180 on how I feel about it.
The psychological thriller about a fast-food manager (Ann Dowd) instructed by a prank phone caller (Pat Healy) to lead a young, female employee (Dreama Walker) through a series of increasingly degrading investigative steps made me squirm in frustration as I was watching it. I knew it was based on true events, but was incredulous that any situation could get this far. How stupid can people be? I wondered.
But the more I thought about it, the more impressed I found myself with the mastery of tension and tone writer-director Craig Zobel displayed, and with the precise performances he drew from his actors. "Compliance" stuck with me, challenged me and changed my mood in a way most films don't, and it's been prompting similarly strong and sometimes vocal responses from audiences since its Sundance premiere.
As the film expands this week, Zobel was nice enough to pick five of his own favorite psychological thrillers. Here he is, in his own words:
— "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991): This film is an amazing blend of creepy and tense that makes me hold my breath no matter how many times I watch it. The performances and filmmaking are all just amazing. And the script— with Clarice, its complex protagonist, and its twin monsters of Lecter and Jame Gumb — is really impeccable. One of those rare films that totally surpasses its source novel. If you haven't seen it recently, find it and watch it again. It not only holds up, but I pretty much guarantee it'll be one of the creepiest and best films you've seen.
— "Repulsion" (1965): Which Polanski? "Knife In The Water" quickly jumps to mind. But remember that part in "Repulsion" where Catherine Deneuve's sister has gone on vacation with her married boyfriend, and the dude has accidentally left one of his shirts in their apartment? And how Deneuve takes the shirt of the philanderer and just smells it for a long time? What a weird way to react to someone you hate. Add the fact that she wanders around with a dead rabbit in her purse for half the movie, and you've gotta put that on the list.
— "The Conversation" (1974): I love "The Conversation." This movie rocked me the first time I saw it. Gene Hackman plays a man so sure of what he knows, that his mind (and apartment) becomes entirely dismantled as he finds out the lesson of "assume nothing." I also love how it's basically a faithful remake of Antonioni's "Blow Up." But rainier.
— "Don't Look Now" (1973): For people who only like things that make complete sense, maybe this isn't the first movie on this list you should watch. But Nicolas Roeg's deconstructed, fractured editing is at its best here, and Donald Sutherland is at his most moody/cool. If psychological thrillers are all about tone, this film is the definition of foreboding. It also makes a terrifying case for not allowing any short people to ever wear red hoodies.
— "Rear Window" (1954): You could basically do a list of psychological thrillers where it was just all Hitchcock. Talk about a dude's bread and butter. But man, was he great at it. However, I sorta feel like "Rear Window" is unique — its structure is so simple yet tense — that its influence can be felt in almost all examples of the genre to follow it.