This review was originally published on January 28, 2012…
As I watched Craig Zobel’s controversial film “Compliance,” the strangest thing happened to me. As the real-life tale of a boss who begins to roughly interrogate and search an employee, based on the insistence of a “police inspector” who has called in to say an employee has been stealing from customers and thus must be detained by her employer, played out, I was actively offended. Not just offended in a way where I was repelled by what I was seeing, although that was true as well.
I was offended that Zobel was bringing to life this true horror story and my mind began the uncomfortable process of determining if what I was seeing was the work of a misogynist subjugating and exploiting women in the name of entertainment or a well done cinematic exercise in button pushing that aims for higher scrutiny. This has rarely, if ever, happened to me and it was extremely upsetting and confusing as well as intriguing. Was I becoming one of those oversensitive, touchy-feely, boring a*s people who freak out at the slightest onscreen provocation or is this film meant to be a near-total turnoff that sneakily attempts to get into your mind and upset you? I’m still not quite sure.
I’ve always taken charges of misogyny in film with a grain of salt as I feel like that negative label is too easily slapped on films and filmmakers who frequently depict women in negative and victimized ways onscreen. While I’m prone to defend Brian DePalma most of the time, I absolutely jump to the defense of horror directors like Eli Roth, whose “Hostel 2” was lazily tagged as hateful towards women, and Lucky McKee (“The Woman”) who, although women are treated brutally in his films, they always feature strong female presences who often end up on the winning end of conflict. But “Compliance” felt different to me on many levels, and not just the ones the director is intentionally choosing to create a completely uncomfortable cinematic experience.
Maybe the film got under my skin so well because I had followed the true story of a series of crimes in which a caller would phone businesses professing to be a police officer and somehow get people to do his bidding no matter how insane and irrational it might be. Rather than risk non-compliance with authority, many people would verbally abuse and physically degrade employees at the behest of the caller who laid out a fairly believable case for his unwitting prey.
The case was simply fascinating to me and tied into the “Stanford Prison Experiment” and Yale’s “Miligram Experiment” which are cases studied in low level psychology classes that have always intrigued me. So even though I knew what “Compliance” was about going in, it still rattled me. I didn’t ever “need” to see these actions played out because they shocked me so much when they happened. Yet, “Compliance” is brilliantly acted and directed plus, it’s incredibly engaging even though it’s completely horrifying. It simultaneously pulls you in while pushing you away.
Now for some plot clarification; In “Compliance,” we meet Sandra (Dowd), a middle-aged manager of a crummy fast food joint. Her employees are mostly teens and while she doesn’t seem miserable in her job, it’s clearly not the greatest career in the world. Sandra tries to fit in with her younger employee demographic but comes off awkwardly to cute and sassy Becky (Walker) who sees her boss like any disrespectful young person sees a boss or teacher: like they’re huge dorks. Soon a call comes in from an authoritative sounding man (Healy) who says he’s a police officer who has been surveilling the restaurant for weeks and has evidence, on tape, that Becky has been stealing money from customers. The police squad is thinly staffed and the officer claims he cannot come to the restaurant immediately so he asks Sandra to be a good citizen and detain and search Becky in the back office until he arrives.
Sandra reluctantly agrees and soon the plot turns even more twisted as the officer makes her do incredibly demeaning and cruel things to Becky, all in the name of the law. But for the caller, this isn’t good enough and he slowly begins convincing Sandra to bring others into the office to help them “interrogate” Becky, and off we go on a truly horrifying journey that looks at power and authority and the misuse of both.
As I said, there’s now little doubt in my mind that the filmmaker is talented and is using this situation as an almost psychological test to gauge each viewers comfort level and understanding of authority. Sure, each person would say they’d never do what the characters onscreen are doing, yet over 70 people did do these things. It’s an idea that sticks with you well after the film ends and you’ll find yourself chewing over the film days later.
“Compliance” is very much a horror film and as a fan of the genre who not only enjoys demented and scary films for the thrill, I also study them and try to suss out ideas, politics and in general, why things are scary or weird for viewers. I think this is where “Compliance” got difficult for me to process and why I started down the slippery slope of moral outrange and indignity. While I abhor the term “torture porn,” if I were to be forced to name a film that fit that claim, it would be this one. And I certainly don’t want to use that term lightly or in an accusatory way, but what direction director Zobel chooses to go, who he has act certain ways and the way the story plays out in this film was not only upsetting on the surface, but also in terms of the film itself. Yes, these things happened and happened to people who were described as they were cast in the film. But again, do we need to see this? But ultimately, that’s the point. This is an uncomfortable experience across the board and it’s an extremely affecting and effective one at that. You’re not supposed to “like” it.
Many have argued against the film saying no rational person would agree to commit such acts under these circumstances but it should be made clear to these same people that this is a true story. In fact, is it any more unbelievable than a sweet, small town football hero deployed to Iraq who is accused of gunning down innocent women and children at the order of his commanding officer? I certainly needn’t remind readers that six million Jews were killed by Nazi’s who were acting under orders from an extremely persuasive madman. It’s startling what people will do when an authoritarian demands it and “Compliance” gets at that brilliantly. And it’s indeed completely nuts and I already knew all about it and the studies and circumstances surrounding the plot but still, why was I so offended? I think the answer is that this is a brilliant film that seeks to divide and upset not only groups of people but also, individuals.
I’ve definitely seen worse depicted onscreen and by all manner of filmmaker, good and bad. But “Compliance” has choices by the filmmaker which stick in my craw. I’ve since come to terms with them and, ultimately, I highly recommend the film. But I’m not sure these choices can ever be “o.k.” to me and in the end, I absolutely believe that’s the point “Compliance” is trying to make. I still wrestle with the idea that neither myself nor anyone “needs” to see the events in “Compliance” as they unfold but looking closer, do we ever “need” to see any type of horror film? The answer is basically “no,” however “Compliance” rises above the basic horror genre and demands conversation. It will upset you and intrigue you and make you want to talk about it and learn more. To me, that’s a great piece of filmmaking and a powerful piece of art.