Sundance Diary, volume eight: the final countdown

"Compliance" image from

In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh entries.
No film at this year's festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel's Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can't buy that kind of publicity. Every screening (public and press) that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.)

What is so impressive about Zobel's film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, specifically in the final act of the film. Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized. You'll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that's exactly why the film is so brilliant.

Before moving on, the short film that screened before Compliance needs a special mention for being one of the best films at Sundance 2012. Nash Edgerton's follow up to last year's brilliantly dark short Spider is an 11-minute short entitled Bear. Not only did it catch me completely off guard every step of the way, it's the kind of slick, quick fix that had me panting at the idea of him creating a feature-length film.

Back to horror now. Rodney Ascher's first feature, Room 237, explores the dozens of theories that fans all over the world have regarding Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Ascher, who debuted at Sundance with his masterful short The S from Hell (2010) — about how the 1964 Screen Gems logo gave people nightmares for years ... no, really! — has brought the same sort of enthusiasm towards this cinephilia fantasy.

Investigating theories about Kubrick's methods vs. his madness, Ascher's film uncovers just as many details that will give you goosebumps all the way home as it reveals some of the most outlandish speculations you could ever eavesdrop on. Which is why the film is so damn addictive! Just by putting this much time and energy into deconstructing a film that many 1980 audiences felt was inessential art, you realize how important critical thought truly is. Not only should this film be taught in cinema studies classes in hopes to crack Kubrick's specific codes in The Shining, it's the concept behind Room 237 (don't look in the bath tub!) that deserves to be celebrated.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' Sundance 2012 Top Ten
1. Rick Alverson's The Comedy (USA)
2. Craig Zobel's Compliance (USA)
3. Katie Aselton's Black Rock (USA)
4. Matthew Akers's Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present (USA)
5. Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA)
6. Gareth Evans's The Raid (Indonesia)
7. Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer (USA)
8. Rodney Ascher's Room 237 (USA)
9. Nash Edgerton's Bear (Austrailia)
10. Ben Lewin's The Surrogate (USA)