Compliance, a film by Craig Zobel, received its limited American release on Friday, August 17, to almost universal acclaim. It is a distinct sort of praise, the type reserved for a Movie About Something, at which a cynic might scoff.
Compliance tells the story of a phone call made to a fast-food restaurant by a man claiming to be a police officer, accusing an employee of stealing money. The man delivers a series of instructions, first to the restaurant’s manager and then to a handful of others, supposedly with the intention of revealing the employee’s wrongdoing. The directions contain escalating and unfathomable violations of the employee’s integrity but, incredibly, are largely executed by the manager and her cohorts. Compliance is billed as ”inspired by true events” and, as hard as this may be to believe, very closely resembles an incident in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in 2004.
Clearly, there are implications here that will pique some interest. The Milgram experiment, Nazi war criminals, the Stanford prison experiment, the banality of evil; we’ve been here before. There is little doubt that people can be impressionable and obedient and, if you choose a different angle, hopelessly naïve or loathsome and beastly. Never mind the impulses of a person who would orchestrate a sexual assault via telephone. Compliance, like its various predecessors, will yield self-reflection and perhaps even some much-needed perspective on human imperfection.
That’s the easy part. What is more compelling for this writer is our collective bearing witness, not to the film’s events, but the film itself. Thrusting an audience into the role of the “omniscient observer” is not new to cinema but is a bit rare; even documentaries often position themselves in one place or another. This supposedly impartial approach has inevitably been the subject of praise.
Part of the trouble is, if the goal was to strictly expose an incident and leave the viewers to its implications, then aren’t there more effective mediums? A newspaper article, a book — hell, a 60 Minutes segment? And couldn’t this same message have been conveyed without reducing ourselves to gawking at a prolonged sexual assault? Besides, the collaborative and collective nature of a scripted motion picture, the very act of casting actors and rigging lights and pointing cameras, eradicates the type of neutrality Compliance is hiding behind.
Consider: The accused employee, who appears partially nude for much of the film (and mostly nude for a portion of it), and who is continually degraded and exploited for the length of the film, is not your average girl from rural Ohio but is rather Dreama Walker, rising star, beautiful young woman, appeared on Gossip Girl, star of a new ABC sitcom. To challenge the casting in and of itself is to question Walker’s acting, which isn’t fair and isn’t the point, but it falls within the larger implications of the film’s creation: If there were any consciousness about the exploitation of women, not only by the characters but by the film itself, as Zobel claims, would this truly have been the casting decision? Would the film even have been made?
These are admittedly loaded questions. What is most clear is that they should replace the questions of authority and human susceptibility currently at the center of our discussion about this film. What is also clear is that, no matter how even-handed, carefully managed, or balanced this film purports to be, its various contributors are going to draw considerable income and gain further employment as a result of their work on a film that straightforwardly shows a woman degraded, manipulated, and assaulted. End of story.
- Hecklers, walk-outs, and divided audiences characterized the film’s premiere at Sundance. In a Q&A following the film, a man in the audience interrupted Walker, yelling, “Your body is pretty appealing.” Walker’s co-star, Ashlie Atkinson, jumped to her aid: “My immediate reaction upon seeing the film is that a girl as cute as Dreama feels so robbed of any agency and thereby any effort at beauty. If you can see beauty and find it appealing when all of her agency and her power is taken from her, then I don’t know what to say to you.” On one hand, this is a welcome sentiment; the heckler deserved that and worse. On the other, it’s a bit troubling: Is the purpose then to viciously deny an attractive girl access to her beauty? What does any of us have to gain from watching that?
On an unrelated note, Zobel’s early work is charmingly eclectic. Co-creator of Homestar Runner, co-producer for the great George Washington back in 2000, crew on other David Gordon Green works Undertow and All the Real Girls, art assistant on critical darling Chop Shop, editor of an unreleased of Montreal documentary, and received special thanks on a David Cross video in 2003 (all according to IMDB). Hard to see how Compliance fits in.
From a craftier perspective, a Q&A with Zobel, explaining his process.