Tuesday, September 11, 2012

'Compliance' and Condescension


Note: There are spoilers in this review. Because Compliance is based on a true story with plenty of news coverage (and a Law & Order) episode, I assume you already know the gist of it.

Sometimes, the discourse around a movie might be more important than the movie itself, or can help inform how to make heads or tails of whatever the movie might be trying to say. I'm all for scouring reviews on blogs and IMDb, trying to piece together a sense of coherence for how lots of different groups are talking about a text. With Compliance, Craig Zobel's sophomore feature, the discussion the movie wants you to have is more important than the movie itself. Adapting the true story of a fast-food manager who is sadistically prank-called and tricked into strip-searching and sexually humiliating a co-worker by a man pretending to be a police officer, it's one of those "I can't believe this happened!" kind of stories that, as you might've guessed, was a Law & Order: SVU episode.



But here's the problem with Compliance: It's so thoroughly unbelievable, it's hard to buy it as a serious drama. Movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity always welcome plenty of viewers who dismiss them for characters who are too stupid, contrived, or unrealistic, but one could argue that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. Compliance has garnered lots of criticism and debate from those trying to figure out if it's a devastating study of an authoritarian society, or exploitative trash. I think it's neither, but I still think it fails. The plot is absurd, the characters are broad-stroke caricatures, and for the life of me I can't figure out what Zobel was actually wanting to say. I don't think the "artsy minimalism" accomplishes anything, and after the first 25 minutes or so, the movie becomes more about giving the audience the ability to declare, "if that was me, I wouldn't be fooled at all! These people are morons!" And just feel generally uncomfortable.

The central character of the piece is Sandra (Ann Dowd, the best performer), the manager who is chastised for losing $1500 in inventory in the opening scene. Ostensibly bitter over her workers' carelessness with the freezer, and unable to connect with them in some small talk in the opening scenes, Sandra is painted as an authority figure without authority. The phone call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, the biggest problem with the film, who sounds way too much like Kiefer Sutherland in Phone Booth for my taste) gives her the ability to take control and exert power on someone, simply because an "authority figure" tells her she stole some money.

Dowd's counterweight is Dreama Walker, who plays Becky, the accused thief. Becky is the toughest part of the film, and where I feel like Zobel loses sight of his vision for the project. Whereas Sandra allegorizes psychological studies like the Milgram experiment, Becky seems to be about sexual objectification. Sort of. While she's forced to strip, the camera cleverly frames or cuts so we never see below her waist, or see her from behind. There's one instance, where she first removes her panties, where it looks like we'll see her fully nude -- but then the camera moves behind a stack of boxes. Ostensibly, Zobel's thinking that we'll want to stare at Becky, and so by teasing and then pulling away, he's drawing us in only to criticize us for being sexually aroused.

But that doesn't work, because the movie is so minimally, unerotically shot. While I think it's a really unfair comparison, I was thinking of Pasolini's Salo as I watched -- another movie that preys on sexual humiliation but shows it in pretty ugly gratuity. When Becky is finally sexually violated, it's shown obliquely and conveyed by an extreme close-up pan of a straw. Becky's representation is the most aesthetically unformed part of Compliance, and threatens the whole film on numerous occasions. It's not horrific or devastating to me, because the camera never forces us to really confront the sexual violation.

There's also "Officer Daniels," the clever and manipulative architect of this prank who sits at home on a prepaid phone. After about thirty minutes, Compliance starts showing him sitting in an office, making a bunch of sandwiches, walking around outside, and doing lots of other mundane things while he smirks, writes stuff down, and orders everyone in the ChickWich restaurant to humiliate Becky. At the end of the film, he hugs his little daughter. We get it: Daniels is a horrible guy who's able to just sit there and eat a sandwich while making these people do disgusting things for his own pleasure. If it sounds a little too overplayed, it is. It's just shot minimally.

Because Compliance peeks increasingly outside the ChickWich, it loses its sustained chamber-play effect. When it feels like it just sits back and observes, it's actually a very powerful film. As it goes on -- really, once Becky strips naked -- it just starts to feel like Zobel doesn't really know where he wants to take this movie beyond being visceral and uncomfortable and weighing us down. Yeah, it's an experience. It's more of an experience than a lot of stuff you'll see in a theater right now. But it's the kind of experience where the director shows a spray-painted "No" in the opening shots and you can just see him smirking in the editing room. The New York Times called it "a slow-motion punch to the groin," which is pretty apt. Like getting punched in the groin, you'll be miserable and want to slap the asshole who did it to you.

Zobel doesn't help give us a way into making sense of this of this event from any kind of sociological, psychological perspective. Not that he has to. Compliance is perfectly content to just show things, but it can't even commit to that after a while. It doesn't do enough work with the characters before it starts showing (and not showing) all this mental mayhem. You simply can't throw these people into this situation after 15 minutes of small talk and banal shots. We simply don't understand how they could be duped, why they don't do anything, and why it spirals to such a degree it does. Why don't they understand their own rights? Sorry, I don't buy it. I believe it happened -- it did; there's the camera footage to prove it -- but I don't agree with how Zobel devises these particular versions of the characters. All you'll want to do is scream, "he's not a cop, you dumbasses!" after 90 seconds, and for the next hour. And something tells me that's not really the target Zobel was aiming for.

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