Julia Straub says Compulsus staggers in the execution of its message of empowerment.
Director Tara Thorne makes her feature debut with queer thriller Compulsus, a tale that explores what would happen if society’s gender-based power dynamics shifted. Set in city streets and dark alleys, a poet, fed up with the unwanted advances of men and violence against women, begins a crusade. The film stars Lesley Smith, Hilary Adams, and Kathleen Dorian and dives deep into themes of vigilante justice and patriarchal abuse.
Wally (Smith) is the aforementioned poet who enjoys the company of her friends and her increasingly absent sister, Dev (Adams). Their city suffers an onslaught of violence against women where men do as they please without consequence. One night, Wally spots a known abuser, follows the nameless, faceless man, and furiously beats him. Fueled by her resulting empowerment from the attack and praise from women around town, she continues her fierce and secret assaults against male abusers with the help of her new girlfriend, Lou (Dorian).
The simple cinematography causes Compulsus to be interpreted as a romantic drama rather than an engaging thriller. The lighting and color remain soft during the day while the night is saturated with dark yet distinct neon lights, visually highlighting the attacks. The camera angles are sometimes sloppy, which becomes confusing in specific scenes, and some shots linger longer than they need to. However, the music amplifies the film enough to overlook the other technical oddities. The trendy beats adapt to the setting of each location, whether it’s a summertime melody during a date or a retro track following a montage of attacks. The film adds unique sound design with heavy, uneasy breathing when Wally encounters dangerous men, building tension and reflecting the apprehension of women in problematic and misogynistic situations.
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While the performances tend to be subpar at best, the script, in particular, is one of the film’s weakest points. Inauthenticity shines through the lights of the awkward dialogue, making it difficult to connect with the characters. Unfortunately, the one-dimensional characters do not redeem the narrative, particularly Wally. Lacking any depth, she is the story's antihero, and we only see her most profound expressions through her poetry. She continues her vigilante actions, not because of a lack of consequences but because her violence prompts approval from other women. Wally shows little character growth; her only personal motives come from her sister’s abusive relationship. Her simplicity leaves little room to invest emotionally, and the film suffers greatly.
Thorne attempts to create an impactful message about fighting back against the patriarchy, hoping to instill a sense of hope in female audiences. The point is crucial to address, but the film runs out of room to do it justice. While it can be exciting to see a woman take a stand and deliver punishment to abusers, Compulsus doesn’t go far beyond violence and isn’t prepared to answer what happens when violence begets violence. Hopefully, the audience leaves with the impression that women must refuse silence rather than resort to brutality.
One commendable attribute is the film’s choice to bleep the accusers' names and leave them faceless. The media tends to give offenders a voice, leaving survivors to bask in obscurity, seemingly enforcing that assault is a secret shame to be discussed behind closed doors. Thorne’s decision instead gives survivors power over abusers, refusing to humanize these men in any way.
Compulsus’ low budget understandably contributes to its clumsy production. While combatting sexism and violence against women deserves attention, the film faces its fair share of shortcomings, and the lessons require more attention to effectively make a statement. Instead, it's a thin attempt that fails to elicit emotion because of its strange cinematography, flat characters, and convoluted missives.
Compulsus screened at the Popcorn Frights festival on August 11-21, 2022.