For the dog days of August, this weekend boasts an unusual bounty of worthwhile small releases arriving on the big screen. So I thought I’d divide today’s review space between two new independent films by young directors, both of which turn what could have been clichéd subject material into films as unexpected as they are unforgettable.
Robot & Frank, the debut feature of director Jake Schreier, is a sneaky little bastard of a movie: It creeps up on you slowly, at first seeming like something you might have seen before, then revealing itself as several different somethings you definitely haven’t. I know I’ve never seen an intergenerational domestic comedy about the tensions caused by live-in robot labor, or a heist picture in which one of the prime break-in targets was a rare edition of Don Quixote. It’s also unusual to come across a sci-fi fable that’s neither dystopic nor utopic. Instead, Schreier’s film—scripted by Christopher D. Ford and starring Frank Langella as Frank, an old man whose son buys him a mechanized caretaker—is set in an unspecified “near future” that, like the present, is full of muddled individual people, each trying to work out day by day how to cope with technology’s growing presence in their lives.
Hunter (James Marsden) doesn’t buy his dad that home health care ‘bot because he’s an unfeeling son. On the contrary: Hunter regularly drives the 10-hour round trip to visit Frank’s house in Cold Spring, N.Y., and lovingly nags his father to eat better, to get out more, to see a specialist about his failing memory. But Frank is a crank and a misanthrope, distrustful of technology—he still checks out books by the pile from the local library, which is about to be modernized into a sleek, printed-matter-free “community space.”
After a few weeks of bitter resistance to the ministrations of the robot (which he refuses, on principle, to name), Frank grudgingly submits to the machine’s insistence that he stop eating junk food, go for hikes, and stick to a daily schedule. But it’s not until Frank confesses his secret passion, cat burglary—in his younger years, he served a stint in prison for it—that he realizes the true potential of his new gadget. Once he’s determined that the robot has received no programming vis-à-vis morality, Frank trains it to pick locks, with the vague plan of breaking into the library to steal the kind, sexy librarian’s favorite book. She’s played by Susan Sarandon, and Frank, not surprisingly, has long been sweet on her. But when a robot and a man with dementia plan a heist together, there’s a lot that can go wrong …
At heart, Frank & Robot is, true to its title, a buddy movie about the complicated relationship between a thief and his mechanized sidekick (a sleek, white, helmeted creature voiced with unsettling politeness by Peter Sarsgaard). But it’s also a rueful and funny reflection on aging, death, parenthood, and technology. Hunter hopes the home health care ‘bot will be his father’s salvation, while Frank’s daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), a globetrotting activist who’s fervently anti-robot, is convinced it will be his downfall. Instead, the robot, like the movie, turns out to be something richly, ambivalently in between.
The less you know going in about Compliance, the second film from director Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound), the better. The naturalistic and initially unassuming drama steadily builds to a climax that’s all the more devastating when you realize that these events, or some very like them, actually happened. In real life, the story took place at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky.; Zobel sets his version at a fictional “ChickWich” franchise somewhere in Ohio. The restaurant’s middle-age manager, Sandra (the extraordinary Ann Dowd), is already gearing up for an extra-stressful workday—a visit from corporate higher-ups is scheduled, and Fridays are always busy—when she gets a call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, who won’t show up as more than a disembodied voice until well into the movie). It seems a teenage counter clerk, Becky (Dreama Walker), has been accused of stealing money from a patron, a charge Becky indignantly denies.
Officer Daniels asks Sandra to keep Becky cloistered in the restaurant office until an officer can get there to investigate.
Over the next few hours, “Officer Daniels”—who, as we soon learn, is in fact not a policeman at all, but a sick prank caller with a talent for bullying and manipulation—manages to convince Sandra that Becky must be strip-searched, have her clothes taken away, and be left to sit, naked but for an employee apron, in the office for hours. As Sandra is succeeded on her watch by other ChickWich workers, her boyfriend (Bill Camp), and eventually a restaurant patron (John Merolla), the general creepiness quickly spirals into sexual humiliation and worse, all coolly orchestrated by the invisible fake cop on the other end of the line.
The filmmaker describes reading about the Mount Washington prank-call case and wondering how the hoax could possibly have gone as far as it did: What must the caller have said to convince well-meaning people to be complicit in such degrading acts rather than simply hang up the phone? Compliance is Zobel’s attempt to answer that question as realistically and nonjudgmentally as possible: It’s as unexploitative as a movie about a naked blond teenager held hostage could possibly be. Though Becky’s ordeal is at the center of the story, it’s Sandra, the tired, hassled, eager-to-please manager, who becomes a stand-in for the audience. On our watch, we ask ourselves, could we possibly have allowed such a thing to happen? Compliance examines, among other things, how misplaced faith in authority can lead to abuse on a systemic scale. It’s a deeply moral movie about the failure of morality, as grueling to watch as it is necessary.