Reviewed: Compliance directed by Craig Zobel

Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy star in this unsettling indie thriller.

Every time there is a column or survey which concludes that the world no longer needs its critics, I feel a little less at home in the world. I make use of criticism all the time. Aviator longa, vita brevis, I always say. Or at least I will now.

Compliance, by Craig Zobel, is a film about a prank phone call made to a fast food restaurant. The caller claims to be a police officer, and instructs the store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) to strip-search a young female employee (Dreama Walker) whom he claims stole money from a customer. Eager to please, Sandra – by a long stretch the most nuanced character in the film – is compliant. She forces the young cashier to undress and confiscates her clothes. When “Officer Daniels” asks her to draft in her half-drunk fiancée, she conforms again. The victim falls silent. The inevitable catastrophe is set it motion.

Compliance repeatedly flaunts its authenticity. The preamble reminds us of the experiments by Stanley Milgrim, who aimed to provide objective confirmation that human beings will inflict horrors upon their neighbours when instructed to do so by a figure of authority. “INSPIRED BY REAL EVENTS” flashes across the screen. Zobel establishes a believable setting and collection of characters amid the smoke and grease of a fast food chain, then proceeds to stretch that credulity across 90 unsettling minutes.

As Sandra becomes instrumental in the captivity, strip-search, degradation and eventual assault of the 19-year-old Becky, it becomes clear the film is less interested in locating culpability, and more in the tedious destruction of a young woman's dignity. The narrative end game is clear from the trailer – or the first time our mystery caller uses one of many phone sex clichés: “What is she wearing right now … describe it to me”. Waiting for Godot was never this depressing. The question of culpability when all acting agents are – to some degree – compliant in the crime, identifies a grey area in jurisprudence and throws into relief our need to please authority, whatever the cost.

The problem lies with the execution. The film misfires. The undressing of Becky is made all the more excruciating due to the predictability of seeing a middle-aged men placed opposite a semi-virginal adolescent: “Pink is my new thing,” Becky explains to a colleague. Sadly, barely ten minutes are given over to exploring the moral and legal complexity of the crime. Other than the visual triggers which suggest the caller could be anyone – the “Dad” mug on his desk, the suburban kitchenette – we learn nothing of his deeper motives.

As press junkets go, only Bruce Willis and Kathryn Bigelow have had less fun than Zobel during the last six months. Half of the six-hundred-person audience at the London Film Festival walked out of the film. Time called it “Sundance torture porn”. When Simon Mayo asked Zobel why his leading lady had to be so "statuesque", he fumbled. “I don’t really understand that note,” he said. “I tried to cast the very best actor”.

Cinema works by capturing images and manipulating the audience's gaze. It is both an art form and an industry: a medium with degrees of exploitation at its core. Mid-way through Compliance the prank caller tells Becky she needs to become like an actress, and do exactly as she is directed. As I ditched my ticket stub and headed into the cold, the irony was not lost on me. Few films make clearer the ugly side of what they do.

Dreama Walker as Becky in Craig Zobel's Compliance.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
Show Hide image

The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times