[Editor's Note: Poster Lab is your weekly dose of movie poster dissection, wherein the House examines the pluses, minuses, and in-betweens of the poster design(s) for a buzzworthy film.]
Two of the year's most striking posters are beautifully simple, their designs made up of little more than mysterious ingenues and coolly apt text. Apart from their humble origins, Sundance standout Compliance and SXSW favorite Starlet don't appear to have much in common, yet their ads announce the same artful drama encircling a captivating blonde. Wreathed in cigarette smoke, Dree Hemingway just about stares through you in her one-sheet, an ethereal head-turner and easy contender for one of 2012's best. Tiny details like rhinestone-studded fingernails subtly support the identity of Jane (Hemingway) as a socialite-esque Valley girl, whose rudderless life with her roommates gets upended by an elderly woman and a moral dilemma. According to the film's synopsis, Starlet is in fact the name of Jane's pocketbook-ready Chihuahua, but naturally, it doubles as our introduction to a bombshell, whose pedigree is as laced with enticing prestige as this poster is infused with California heat. Hemingway is the daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Ernest, and Starlet marks her leap from model to leading lady. Her arrival is as much a draw as anything else the poster is selling, and the mix of seediness and class lends a certain forbidden air to the viewer's curiosity. Who's the girl behind the smoke? It's like an invitation to a party where half the thrill is the promise of morning-after guilt.
Compliance, on the other hand, offers a poster that's immediately, if not quite explicitly, sinister, leading with a facial expression that's eerily desperate without being totally unglamorous. The mouth, hair, and jawline of Dreama Walker keep her beauty well intact; however, her tortured character, Becky, looks like she's hopelessly drowning, not least because of the savvy composition that places her head in the bottom-right corner. Inspired by the real-life "Strip Search Prank Call Scam" that terrorized female restaurant workers from the mid-nineties to the early aughts, Compliance sees fast-food cashier Becky pulled aside by her boss (Ann Dowd), who dutifully follows the instructions of a caller who claims to be a cop, and who insists that Becky robbed a customer and needs to be fully searched. What follows has inspired many critics to lavish praise on the intimate thriller, praise that, along with the other left-justified text, elegantly decorates the poster and ably builds buzz. One might think this image's key detail is that second C in the title, which, with its positioning over Walker's eye, toys with the concept of achingly close scrutiny, but the best bit actually lies in the background—an out-of-focus whiteboard scrawled with a message encouraging staff to "smile!" The full combination is extraordinarily effective, an exemplary display of how to maximize a loaded film still.
Together, the posters call to mind the imagery of the great whopper of women-in-trouble films, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Walker's aggrieved, upward gaze directly evokes a poster for Lynch's masterpiece, while the Starlet shot has all the mood and atmosphere of a West Coast whodunit. As Hitchcock would attest, the allure of the yellow-haired dame is undeniable, especially if that dame is dreamlike or distressed. We get a beguiling taste of both with these ads, and though the films they herald are different, the interests they pique are intertwined.