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August 25, 2012

The first time people hear about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, they’re usually surprised at just what someone will do when directed by what they perceive as an authority figure. Milgram’s methods were creepy enough on their own — the standards of ethics for experiments involving human subjects had to be changed in their wake — but they got even creepier in the real-life case of a prank call scheme that played out from 1994 to 2004. And while the ideas of how people passively submit to authority are fascinating, Craig Zobel has brought them to the screen in the creepiest way possible in Compliance.

The film follows a fictionalized version of the final call, to a McDonald’s restaurant in Kentucky, here transformed to a “ChickWich” franchise. In the middle of an already stressed Friday the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), takes a call from a man identifying himself as “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) of the local police department. He claims to have eyewitness accounts of a young blonde woman working the counter stealing money from a customer’s purse. Sandra calls in Becky (Dreama Walker), who “Daniels” seems to be describing, and the ordeal begins.

I’m not going to go into the details of everything that ensues. Suffice to say that “Officer Daniels” is not who he claims to be, and that he orchestrates an incredible sequence of emotional and sexual abuses that last well into the night. And yes, it seems unbelievable that it works as well as it does, but like I said: the first time people run into Milgram-style compliance with authority it seems pretty unbelievable.

Sitting there in our comfortable theater seats, we can say we wouldn’t go along with it. We can say that we’d have lawyered up right away. We can say that we’d have asked for “Officer Daniels” to give his badge number and independently verified it, or called the regional manager he said he was working with on another line. We can say all sorts of things like that, but the fact is that if a man calls up and claims to be a police officer the usual response is to believe that he is, and that’s the thin end of this wedge.

I will give Zobel this credit: he has done his homework on how this sort of thing works. The lines that “Daniels” uses are chillingly appropriate. He cold-reads Becky’s name off of Sandra, then reinforces the idea that he had known it. He repeats his statements that “I am an officer of the law” and “I take full responsibility”; the first plays on social cues of power and dominance, and the second provides the excuse Sandra and others need to absolve themselves of their acts.

And yet.

And yet, the film as it stands is repugnant. It’s one thing to say that people in the abstract will do horrible things when directed by a perceived authority figure, but this is not an abstract case illustrating a point. These things, in pretty much this order, happened to a specific young woman. The awkwardly tacked-on final ten or fifteen minutes rehashing and reenacting the actual fallout — the lawsuits and the television interviews — of the real case make it clear that this is intended to present the story of what happened to this particular victim for public consumption, as if she hasn’t been humiliated enough already.

But what makes it worse is the nature of the offense. The caller did not personally rape his victim, and yet we rightly feel that he has done her harm. First and foremost, he suborned her abuse, but what really makes his actions repulsive is his voyeurism. And film, we may forget, is inherently voyeuristic; in watching, we are all implicated in this woman’s humiliation. We may not have sought out anyone to perform these acts for our prurient interest, but we cannot consume them — even in a fictionalized form — and pretend our hands are spotless.

More than once I recalled Michael Haneke’s comments about his own film, Funny Games. Is Compliance, too, secretly a test which we pass by refusing to watch? Even if that’s not the intent, I applaud the impulse of those women who have walked out — unsurprisingly at the showing I attended all the walkouts were initiated by women — but I cast no personal aspersions on those who, like me, stayed through to the end. After all, we’re socialized not to walk out of movies just as we’re socialized to defer to authority.

And maybe Compliance will join Funny Games in the canon of important films which should not be watched. Haneke’s film, though, has the saving grace that its story was made up out of whole cloth in order to make his points.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: it pains me to say it, but it does pass.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2012 21:41

    What if the woman in question actually favored making the film, or acted as an adviser? I find it hard to believe it would have been legal to make the film, given that it’s based on a true story, without her consent, but I might be wrong. If it was with her consent, would you still maintain that it’s not worth it? Isn’t that kind of like sticking your head in the sand?

  2. August 25, 2012 22:00

    I read another review that indicates the victim is actually a pastiche of a number of women victimized by this guy at fast food restaurants across the country. It also seemed to say that it shouldn’t be watched for the reason that it’s a bad movie, basically pointless pornography that insists that it’s more important than it is. That’s quite a bit different than an important movie that shouldn’t be watched. That review is here.

  3. August 25, 2012 22:20

    I see no evidence that she had anything to do with it, and I find it just as hard to believe that Zobel wouldn’t have been trumpeting this to the high heavens in his defense after the Sundance showing broke down in screaming matches.

    As for the other review, the big problem I have is that this is clearly not a “bad movie” in anything but its content. The writing is excellent, as I pointed out; the cast performs admirably. And if we’re down to content, what is the real difference in the assessments?

    To put it more bluntly: taking your two comments at face value, do you mean to suggest that this is condemnable as pornography without it being exploitative?

  4. August 25, 2012 22:57

    Let me just say that I’ve read some reviews along with yours and watched the trailer but not the movie. If that disqualifies me from saying anything more in your eyes, then just ignore me. I’m saying that because some people are not crazy about discussing movies with those who haven’t seen them. If it actually is a movie that I shouldn’t ever see, like say, a snuff film is, then I want to know it. If it’s important, but very uncomfortable to watch, then I want to know that. If it’s just a pornographic exploitation that doesn’t say much beyond what we know about human psychology from the Milgram experiment, I want to know that. I think what I find a little baffling is my impression from your review that you think this is an important and well made movie that perhaps shouldn’t be watched, and the “not worth it” mark seems to confirm that. To me, this seems like obscurantism without any real explanation other than a declaration that this should be “verboten.” It’s similar to what I think when I hear of people who think “Lolita” shouldn’t be read, even while acknowledging that it was one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. I mean, if that’s really how you feel, then I accept it at face value. It’s just a little confusing to me.

  5. August 25, 2012 23:12

    I mean it in exactly the same sense that it applies to Funny Games: that it was made is important. To actually watch it is demeaning.

    I don’t think it is, in general, worth it to watch The Birth of a Nation or Triumph des Willens either, for what it’s worth.

  6. August 26, 2012 01:44

    I have my suspicions that some kind of consent must have been received, particularly if this was taken from one woman’s experience, given how careful films are to insists that “any similarity to persons is purely coincidental” and all that, but I’m no lawyer. Even if that were the case, of course, you still have the right to think the film shouldn’t be watched. I recently watched a Youtube of Siskel and Ebert’s review of Blue Velvet back in the 80s. Ebert thought Lynch had exploited Isabella Rossellini, regardless of her consent, which Siskel pointed out. I don’t think Ebert has ever changed his mind about it.

  7. August 26, 2012 08:38

    There’s an argument to be made about Blue Velvet, but Rossellini was an actress in the film, not the subject.


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