Friday, February 15, 2013

‘Compliance’ (2012) directed by Craig Zobel

In 1961 psychologist Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to measure willingness to obey authority.  The volunteers for the experiment were asked to quiz a person hooked up to an electro-shock generator.  Every time the person being questioned answered incorrectly, the volunteer would be instructed to give them an electric shock, increasing in voltage for every question they got wrong.  A third person, a scientist, kept instructing the volunteer to shock the subject, even as the volunteer feebly protested.  As the shocks increased in voltage, the subject began to scream in pain, or bang on the walls.  If the volunteer wanted to halt the experiment, the scientist ‘running’ the experiment would verbally prod them saying phrases like “The experiment requires that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.”  

If the volunteer subject repeatedly stated his desire to end the experiment, then after four verbal prods the experiment was halted.  If they chose to continue, the experiment ended with the volunteer administering a massive 450v shock three times in succession, with no response from the subject, who the volunteer could expect to assume they have killed.  Milgram and his colleagues expected a tiny percentage of volunteers to progress beyond 300v shocks, yet to their surprise 65% of the subjects administered the final ‘fatal’ shocks.  These volunteers were barbers, telephone workers, salespeople and businessmen, ordinary people who were apparently prepared to kill on command for $4.00 (plus 50c carfare).

Dreama Walker as Becky
It’s impossible not to think of the Milgram experiments during Compliance, a film that shows us men and women meekly submitting to assumed authority and sexually abusing a teenage girl.  The film is set in a generic KFC/McDonalds-alike fast food restaurant called ‘ChickWich’.  In the middle of a busy day the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phonecall from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels.  He explains that one of her employees has been accused of stealing from a customer, and gives her a vague physical description.  Sandra identifies this ‘thief’ as Becky (Dreama Walker), and summons her to the managers office.  The vast majority of the rest of the film takes place in this office, as, under telephone instruction from 'Officer Daniels', employees and friends strip, humiliate, sexually abuse and rape Becky.  

Of course, 'Officer Daniels', isn't a police officer at all.  The whole thing is an impossibly cruel prank phone call, a term that barely seems able to cover the scope of what happens.  As you watch these fast-food workers abandon first their autonomy and then their morality you begin to wonder just how moronic these people are.  The call begins plausibly, but by the time you’ve been instructed to bend a naked, crying teenage girl over your knee and spank her surely - surely - you’d think something was up?

The apparent stupidity of these characters is immensely frustrating, but you have to watch this with the knowledge that all of this really happened.  The first image of the film is: “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS”.  The white on black text takes up the entire screen, as if to impress the truthfulness of the film upon us from the very beginning.  That the film rigorously sticks to the facts is key to what makes Compliance worth watching, and more importantly, means you’re able to watch it without feeling like you're getting prurient voyeuristic thrills.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing this film.  I was already familiar with the incident it dramatises, and having done some cursory research I was worried it was going to be uncomfortably exploitational.  I got an email prior to the press screening informing me to “please note that this film contains scenes of forced nudity, sexual manipulation and implied sexual violence.  I wouldn’t recommend it for a Valentine’s Day date movie.”  I reckon I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for watching disturbing films, but frankly, the idea of sitting through what sounded like a 90 minute rape scene on Valentine’s Day didn’t exactly fill my heart with joy.

Ann Dowd as Sandra
Fortunately, Compliance treats its subject matter with careful sensitivity.  Dreama Walker’s Becky is an attractive woman, but watching her shivering and naked under cold fluorescent light makes you feel guilty for not looking away.  The humiliations she endures are never framed to arouse; they focus on hands pressed against greasy floors, her tear-streaked cheeks or the cardboard boxes of branded condiments around her. 

To some degree it’s arguable that Zobel has shot the film to make us identify with Becky.  I think it’s a little more complicated than that.  It’s easy to forget that ‘Officer Daniels’ never sees what’s happening, he’s left to imagine everything, constantly asking for descriptions.  The audience becomes his eyes, dispassionately observing the events.   Most of the characters in this film are so blindly moronic in their devotion to authority that’s it’s difficult to sympathise with them. Worryingly I even found myself getting a little frustrated at the passivity of the victim.  All of this leads to ‘Officer Daniels’ being the only person who knows as much as we do, making the audience queasily complicit in his crime.

Set designers! There are other colours than blue and orange!
But it’s the restaurant manager Sandra that becomes the most complex character.  Expertly played by Ann Dowd, she embodies much of what Compliance is trying to tell us about the dangers of submitting to authority.  In most circumstances she’d seem perfectly nice, if a little dull, but her critical flaw is the notion that being polite and pleasant is enough to get through life and that questioning authority is inherently a bad thing.  In the rigid hierarchy of fast food this mindset works well. At the start of the film we see her pointedly telling her staff that they need to stick to ChickWich operating procedure to make it through the day.  Worryingly, we also catch her shooting annoyed looks at Becky, raising the disturbing point that at least subconsciously she wants to see this girl being taken down a peg.

As the abuse gets worse, Sandra’s position becomes more entrenched.  She strips a clearly distressed Becky, apologising to her all the while but never once considering that she could just not strip her.  She willingly deludes herself into believing that leaving a naked Becky alone with a man she barely knows is the sensible thing to do.  In the disturbing epilogue to the film we see Sandra being interviewed about her complicity in Becky’s abuse.  She considers herself absolved of responsibility, slipping into easy, mindless small-talk to try and deflect questioning away from disturbing questions.  Clearly she has learned nothing.

It’s incredibly tempting to condemn Sandra outright(and, by extension, the real woman she’s based on), but what both this film and the Milgram experiment demonstrates is that a desire to submit to authority is a very human trait, one that to some degree is present in all of us.   What Milgram realised, and what the events of Compliance demonstrate, are that when ‘normal’ individuals feel they have surrendered responsibility for their actions to an authority figure, they can be made to do the most monstrous things.  Though Compliance may be almost documentarian in its rigorous approach, the restaurant setting also serves as a neat microcosm for society as a whole.  Sandra is a perfect example of someone who has completely surrendered herself to a series of stacked systems; the franchise rules for operating her restaurant; the wider corporate environment of fast food and the justice system.  Her decisions are not her own: she doesn’t think about her actions, she just follows set procedure.  And as the film effectively demonstrates, when someone exploits their knowledge of those procedures and systems of authority, they can get Sandra, or anyone for that matter, to do almost anything.

Despite my misgivings going in I quickly began to, if not enjoy, then appreciate Compliance.  It’s coolly and intelligently directed, making excellent use of what I assume is a relatively limited budget.  There’s too much blue and orange in the set, prop and costume design but aside from that the film conjures up a believable corporate environment from thin air.  All the performances are great, a few bordering on brilliant.  The sense of tension and dread once the phone rings rivals anything I’ve seen lately, and the film just about sustains it throughout its perfect, concise 90 minute running time.  It’s not a movie for everyone, but as an expose of the dark side of normality it’s succeeds brilliantly.

So, go and see it.  No, really, go and see it when it comes out.  You’d better do what I say or I’m going to have to call in my superior.  You’ve got two choices here; go and see it, or there’ll be trouble.  And you don’t want trouble right?  Of course not, you’re a good person.  So go and see it.  Trust me.


‘Compliance’ is released 22 March 2013

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