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.