'Compliance' Churns the Stomach, Brain
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Everyone in America should be arrested at least once in his or her life, and be sober while the process is happening, and pay close attention to the process. That is my personal takeaway from "Compliance," the hot-button indie film written and directed by Craig Zobel. The absorbing and infuriating picture intends to be a coruscating study of operational ethics in 21st-century workaday America and how fear of authority can make fools/puppets of us all.
The movie chronicles, in excruciating detail, an incident at a fast-food restaurant at which a harried manager is browbeaten into sexually assaulting a young employee by a "cop" phoning the store, who asserts that this young employee has stolen money from a victim who's at the police station with the officer. This is of course -- and of course is part of the point of the movie's existence in that we look at it from the relatively luxurious perspective of being able to say "of course" -- an appalling prank. And the scenario is based on, or as a title card says at the film's opening, "inspired by," not just one such successfully executed prank but over 70 of them.
"How could people be so stupid?" and/or "I would never fall for that" are the two statements most people will almost reflexively make to themselves in the event of reading the real-life details of these cases. What Zobel's film lays out in, as I said, incredibly discomfiting detail, is how ordinary people can be manipulated into committing abhorrent acts: by being told their employment is at risk if the titular compliance isn't given; by appeals to doing the "right" thing; and so on. As the prank caller wheedles personal details from both manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) and employee Becky (Dreama Walker) and others and turns that information against them, directly and indirectly, the stomach-churning tension builds.
But even as that's happening, one's awareness of the way Zobel is stacking the deck grows ever more irritating. The movie's very opening, in which the "inspired by true events" disclaimer features the corner of an American flag dangling in the upper right of the film's widescreen frame, is an unwelcome nudge. The film's dovetail into Up-To-The-Minute Social Concerns is signaled by Becky's observation, "I just can't be not having a job right now," which is almost immediately followed by another employee's compliment to Becky about her new cellphone. Get it?
Also of interest is the way that Zobel's chosen to make the manager quite remarkably frumpy while the victim Becky is almost hallucination-worthy attractive, and that he stokes the mutual resentment potentially inherent in this dynamic right from the start. These little touches (not to mention an arty string-quartet-then-chamber-ensemble music score that seems to make a point of being exactly the type of music that none of the film's lumpen characters might never be caught dead listening to), aside from testing the credulity of this specific scenario, are sufficient to make one suspect the good faith of the filmmaker himself, and to wonder to what extent he's using the "inspired by true events" tag as a get-out-of-jail-free card with respect to his perspective on the characters in the film. A better artist would make the viewer more curious about the characters and their actions than about the artist's attitude toward them. In that sense, "Compliance" ends up being about certain things that it would rather not be about. (That the picture's sole African-American character is apt to spout dialogue such as "I ain't messin' with no cops" is a somewhat similar indicator of a problem.) Which is too bad, but I guess it could conceivably be another hot button that this hot-button movie pushes.
Above, I wrote that audiences may think, "How could people be so stupid?" while watching this movie. Well, back to my initial point, if everyone in America were to be arrested, and to pay attention during the arrest, and ask pertinent questions, they would understand that civilians are never authorized to conduct strip searches via the instructions of a "police officer" speaking over a telephone line. Just saying.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.