Compliance (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Compliance (2012)

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1Andrew LIKE BannerHere we are.  It's a tiny room, the longer we stay in here the more the humidity is going to collect and fall on you.  I'll speak with authority, and you'll sit there and nod meekly.  If you refuse to nod I'll assert my credentials.  I've been doing this for almost three years now.  I went to school to get my degree for this.  Do you want to get in trouble by questioning me over this?

Most likely you'll feel ashamed, but those few who break free from the shame descent may be able to question exactly what this is.  What right do I have to dictate your behavior?  Opinions?  Just because I puff my chest out and claim superior credentials over you doesn't automatically make my thoughts any more important.

That is, unless I browbeat you.  Therein lies the open wound at the center of Compliance.  I am going to assert my dominance over you because power is built from the ground up and I am here to tell you are at the bottom.  I have authority, you don't - you can barely keep your family together.  Why wouldn't you listen to me?

All the performances are incredible because they surrender themselves completely to the scenario.

The performances are incredible because they surrender themselves completely to the scenario.

You'll hear variations of those questions repeatedly in Compliance.  Apparently this film is based on a true story as one of the first shots is an all-caps exclamation of that, but the significance dwindles as time goes on.  It doesn't matter if this is a true story or not.  All that it matters is that it feels true to us in the moment and that what we might consider dismissively as yet another fiction is real as hitting your head on a sharp corner.

We watch as a fast-food chain manager (Ann Dowd) receives a call from a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy) to strip-search one of her employees (Dreama Walker).  The only reason we know the caller is a fake is because we have the benefit of hindsight.  At the time, listening to a smooth and unshaken voice declare himself a legal authority is justification enough to demean an employee the manager already felt inferior to.

Was the inferiority true?  Did the manager really feel like she needed to prove herself to this kid?

All you can do is ask questions.  Writer / director Craig Zobel, in his first feature film, refuses to let us sit long enough to ponder the obvious ones.  Instead he finds ways of keeping his camera moving, be it out on the grills where the employees are wondering why one of their own is forced to humiliate herself for their managers, or in that cramped room where Zobel keeps finding new corners to move the camera to.  Effective as it is, this is still Cinematic Voyeurism 101, and you will be made to feel shame for every second this girl humiliates yourself because the camera will constantly call attention to that fact.

Discomfort is the rule and there are no exceptions.

Discomfort is the rule and there are no exceptions.

This is a merciless film.  The plodding pacing of the camera combined with the static office leaves you nowhere to go despite motions of the frame to the contrary.  While it slugs along the cast, uniformly excellent, devotes themselves to the material.  I have not seen a film in so long that the slightest wink would have been devestating to.  With material this exploitative to begin with it would have been a disaster.

Even the dialogue is rewritten from fact (itself a careful theater) to make it seem more realistic.  Just listen as the boyfriend of the manager (Bill Camp) leaves the resturaunt after the officer has convinced the girl to go down on him.  The record indicates he said "I have done something terribly bad."  But we watch him and when he sits down in his truck, almost ready to cry, he says "I did a bad thing."  The truth is we're not that eloquent in shame.

I suppose we still have that hindsight.  We know that there really was a prankster calling rural resturaunts and department stores using vague orders and descriptions to humiliate people.  But even our outrage at these facts is another calculated fiction.  Compliance takes the brave extra step in its final scenes wondering how any of this happens to begin with.  Then the media steps in, a new narrative is shaped, and we're left to wonder who it's going to happen to next.

There are many times I wanted to stop watching but I didn't.  To that I suppose congratulations are in order.  I think of how alone I would have felt without a soundtrack and no strings to heighten my shame.

Then I just feel more ashamed.

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TailCompliance (2012)

Written and directed by Craig Zobel.
Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, and Pat Healy.

Posted by Andrew

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