Friday, August 17, 2012

In The Eyes,
A Split-Second Surrender To Total Horror

Eyes of horror: at top, Ann Dowd as Sandra; immediately above, Dreama Walker as Becky, the tortured center of the troubling, divisive and excellent "Compliance", directed by Craig Zobel. 
Magnolia Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, August 17
, 2012

How do human beings descend so quickly into an abyss of amorality and depravity?  Is it buried deep within us?  Is a vast, untapped ocean of primordial malevolence percolating just beneath the surface in us waiting to be scratched out?  (Yes and yes.)  Every day -- continuously -- our basest instincts and desires are tested and appealed to, especially in advertising (subliminal and otherwise) -- a telling and frightening technique of "training": mining those gruesome, uncomfortable internal reaches of our humanity by luring us into purchasing or doing something we might not otherwise do. 

In "Compliance", Craig Zobel's masterful, profoundly disturbing experiment in human behavior, both the film's characters and the audiences' basest impulses are tested and prodded throughout.  In some the impulses flourish with reckless abandon.  In others they arise tentatively.  In more any third-rail monsters stay firmly strait-jacketed. 

At ChickWich, a fictional fast-food restaurant in Ohio, all it will take for some working-class intergenerational men and women to let their inner animals hang out -- or rather, their dormant deepest selves to emerge -- is a creepy, persuasive male voice on a telephone line (Pat Healy, disturbing to the hilt here) who has called in to the busy restaurant.  The male voice says he's Police Officer Daniels.  He tells ChickWich's stressed-out middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) that her 19-year-old employee Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer's purse at the restaurant as recently as the last half-hour or so.  Becky is aghast, refuting that any such thing has ever taken place.  Sandra knows Becky is a good employee and has never had trouble with her but the telephone voice overtakes Sandra's own common sense and reasoning.

Before the audience has settled in their seats, Sandra has followed Officer Daniels' request to detain and search Becky until the police -- apparently also undermanned on this busy Friday night -- arrive at ChickWich.  Sandra is too busy and stressed out to think about telephoning the police precinct that's only a quarter-mile down the road from ChickWich.  Sandra has a job to do, darn it, and she's already been scolded for not doing it properly.  Sandra will atone for her faux pas in horrific ways, going far beyond merely detaining Becky in the restaurant's backroom, which becomes a quasi-police precinct or jail, a place where some peoples' inner creatures run distressingly amok.

"Compliance" effectuates a slow-burn nightmare protracted out into ninety tension-filled, suspenseful minutes: a tweak here, a loosening of a belt notch there, a slip into the realm of the subconscious and Twilight Zone bizarre, a lack of critical thinking and lapse in reason -- all colliding with a moment of distraction, dark fantasy and opportunity.  (Robert Mitchum's Max Cady character in "Cape Fear" (1962) once infamously called the slow-burn nightmare "the Chinese death of a thousand cuts".)

Expertly crafted, "Compliance" as cinema is static, indulging the true-life nightmare that would-be medical school student Louise Ogden remains traumatized by to this day.  What we see in "Compliance" happened to Ms. Ogden in 2004.  She was an employee at a McDonald's in Mount Washington, Kentucky.  (Seventy other similar incidents, some even more preposterous than this one, occurred in the U.S. over a ten-year stretch, mainly at fast-food restaurants.)

Pat Healy as Officer Daniels in Craig Zobel's divisive, excellent psychodrama "Compliance".  Magnolia Pictures

Mr. Zobel approximates a trance state in a film that doesn't go from A to Z but instead goes from A to AAAARRGHH on its Richter scale of Hitchcockian horror.  Mr. Zobel is interested in the progression of, or degradation in, human behavior.  He superbly crafts this film as a journey in the psychology of humanity's nosedive.  Like Mr. Hitchcock's based-on-a-true-story of false accusation "The Wrong Man" -- which on some levels "Compliance" is similar to -- the latter film shows us human beings becoming paralyzed by the manipulation of authority, but at one point in Hitchcock's film it is Vera Miles who actually and symbolically cracks, while here Ms. Dowd's excellent work as Sandra has her continuing to do things her nature may or may not have entertained, without any supplemental cinematic overtures. 

At some point however, "authority made me do it" becomes the excuse for these characters (and for Mr. Zobel it's the Milgram experiments) to play out their darkest basest desires.  Early on in "Compliance" characters have subtle flashes of bottomless fantasy, titillation and aggression within.  In an authoritarian America where we are constantly taught from birth to obey authority figures, Sandra is a Grade A authoritarian.  She gives orders.  She's neither analytical nor deliberative.  The fast-food business she's a veteran of doesn't allow for gray areas.  Sandra walks as if marching soldier-like (watch closely for this in a parking lot scene), and Heather McIntosh's phenomenal, deft music score accompanies Sandra's steady, resolute walk but doesn't highlight any character's flaws; it plays as elegy and journey to tragedy. 

It should be said that Sandra has authority but no control; ChickWich restaurant on this wild night spirals out of control in more ways than one, and as compassionate as Sandra is in many respects she's a criminal and a victim of her own avarice and power hunger.  Ms. Dowd finds the roots of all of these traits in Sandra, and superbly, rendering the year's best and most balanced performance.  Each facet of Sandra is wholly relatable, which makes her scary and all too human. 

Officer Daniels could even be said to be a victim -- obviously not of the events that transpire -- but of what might have been a painful past in his own life.  He's a self-hating, inadequate man searching for strength, security and something to believe in in a conservative America that has no time or sympathy for the weak.  Officer Daniels is Sandra's opposite: he's in firm control of an awful, cruel catastrophe but has no authority.  The two could be said to be part of a strange love story as kindred spirits. 

In "Compliance" it truly makes no difference whether the authority figure is real or imagined.  The larger point Mr. Zobel seems to make is that "authority" both as a concept and a literal representation means little and is a paper tiger.  Authority, after all, means neither certitude nor righteousness.  What "Compliance" does is question authority but not necessarily judge it, by showing us the very people who represent authority as subversive, compromised figures.

Whether seduced by authority or not, each character -- indeed all of us as humans -- has nasty capabilities already within.  Sandra's fiancé Evan (Bill Camp) for example, is a compliant, meek fellow from the start.  In one scene we see that Sandra clearly wears the pants in their relationship -- an apparently old-fashioned, sexless and perhaps odd one at that.  In some respects Evan may desire to be subconsciously disobedient of Sandra.  (One ill-advised move early on: Sandra awkwardly tells her employees during work hours that "my man does sex-ting.  He knows what to type to get me heated up.")  Meanwhile Becky is talked about as perhaps having more than one boyfriend, and while she and every woman in the world naturally seeks attention and welcomes flattery there's no earthly way that Becky ever wanted it in the unwelcome, invasive way it arrives in an accumulation of chilling and deeply uncomfortable scenes. 

During "Compliance" some audience members will be hard pressed to stay and watch the entire film.  I can't say that I blame them.  (In April thirty people walked out during the debut screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where, so fascinated was I by the film that I saw it twice in four days.)  Do the audience members who leave abandon Becky because of their own guilt and discomfort?  Do those who stay and watch allow their inner base instinct, voyeur or curiosity to see what else happens to Becky? 

With such dilemmas "Compliance" does what great art is supposed to: provoke and affect, and on completely unfathomable levels.  It's a pulsing, compelling docudrama that forces us as an audience to make a decision about where and how highly Becky registers in our psyche as well as consider if we would ever do what Sandra and company do.  I shouted and cursed vociferously at the screen which I have never ever done before as a film critic, fueled by my impatience and anger with these characters.  I suspect many viewers, regardless of whether they leave will find themselves doing the same, either out of extreme discomfort or anger. 

The film's characters are incredibly aggravating, especially since they have a deficit as against the audience who are far ahead of them.  The deficit is deliberate; Mr. Zobel works to elicit empathy, although many audiences will allow such attempts to fly right over their outraged heads.  Yet by the end I learned to understand the characters and have empathy for them.  The second time I saw the film the audience's reaction -- not the film itself -- made me uncomfortable.

Early on someone says, "you're fucked without bacon," and the truth is that none of the film's participants has the bacon or guts to stop what happens to Becky, even as most of them object to it -- and as one or two flatly refuse to comply with Officer Daniels' invasive directives.  It's notable: the bacon reference implies pigs, which is a derogatory term for police officers.  And the question here is, who is policing whom in "Compliance"?  Is the audience the film's overall police as it witnesses these events unfold?

The saddest, yet most understandable thing given the film's extreme circumstances, is that Becky has tragically complied as well and it is a painful, moving crossroads well-acted by Ms. Walker.  Becky is the film's lone non-villain, unlike the procession of people who flirt with or become savages, overtaken by their own latent depths of decadence and outer reaches of humanity. 

Ann Dowd as Sandra in Craig Zobel's psychodrama "Compliance".  Magnolia Pictures

There are great ethical, moral and legal questions "Compliance" poses and Mr. Zobel does a fine job at keeping the issues at reality level.  He is serious about getting the audience to think about them.  Are his characters "stupid" for doing what they do?  While the events are unsettling and aggravating to a degree that arouses anger the characters are not stupid.  They lack judgment and indulge themselves in ways they never, ever should.  Many people will disagree with this critic's assessment: these characters are intelligent.  Some will think the director is poking fun at them and stating they are undereducated (the whiteboard in the ChickWich backroom has the word "employees" misspelled as "employess").  The film's lone black character who speaks lines makes it clear how she feels about police.  Her statement seems to cut clear through what her trusting white cohorts don't understand: that "the police", in her experience, are typically up to no good.

"Compliance" isn't misogynist -- Officer Daniels is -- as are others.  Men dictate how women are treated in the film.  Gender plays a key role -- as it does in the notion that women (and men) are inherently inclined to follow a man's directives.  Men are widely and instinctively viewed as authority figures, especially in a sexist, male-dominated society.  (Becky and other employees smirk at Sandra when she gives orders and a pep talk.)  Physically stronger than women, men often by their mere presence pose a threat of force and have generally louder, harsher voices.  Here though, "authority" comes from a male voice on a telephone line -- but it's the tone, timbre, command and confidence in the phone voice that compels and triggers weak spots in ChickWich employees to do what they do. 

Some characters subjugate Becky but the director himself doesn't add to it in his filmmaking choices.  He is often very restrained, a difficult feat for such a harrowing film.  Mr. Zobel takes great care in how he represents these complex characters, especially in their subtle transformation from naive angels to unrecognizable horribles.  These decays in human character are authentic leakages of conscience withering away slowly and surely until that raw, unthinking animal nature in humans arises.  When that time arrives you can't help but imagine Sandra with a Nazi uniform on, or Becky being on a white slave trafficking auction block or in a POW camp or getting her 15 minutes of misfortune as Patty Hearst. 

Mr. Zobel is too smart to insert a split-second edit of Sandra wearing a brown shirt.  Such eye-blink devices would exploit "Compliance", trivialize the issues it presents and belittle its characters and the audience.  Instead Mr. Zobel sincerely shows us how people deteriorate into the things they struggle to avoid within themselves.  He does offer a disturbing close-up of single eyeballs of a character, a powerful moment that is over in less than two seconds.  Sandra tries to get the balance right.  Becky just wants to do what she has to to survive, even if doing so puts her in further jeopardy.  It's worth noting that they both aren't cozy with each other on the job, which fuels the idea Sandra has subconsciously had it in for Becky and that this is a chance for Sandra to act out some kind of wicked fantasy of humiliation upon her.  Be that as it may, each character has a point of no return, and where that point occurs is so imperceptible as to be indistinct.

The key to "Compliance" beyond its great acting and tightly-coiled script operating on sly wordplay, precision and innuendo, is its cinema.  Adam Stone's camerawork is sublime, intimately blanketing the screen with extreme close-ups throughout, creating texture, suspense, unease and familiarity.  The camera's slow movement and floating effect are verisimilar proxies for the audience's own projections, discomfort, insecurities and identifications.  There's an imbalanced framing of shots, with the frame tilted slightly at mild Dutch angles and frame room floating above the headspace of Sandra, who at times is almost completely out of the frame as if under a spell or trance, a pendulum of hypnosis, or an off-kilter, disorienting effect. 

The editing by Jane Rizzo is seamless, perfectly evoking surrealism and nightmare, with shots replicating illogic, slipping very easily from cooking oil and bubbling water to horrifying acts of depravity.  How did things get so far out of whack so fast?  "Did the chicken at ChickWich fry these people's brains?", one character asks.

What "Compliance" does so well is pluck at and entertain the silent, uncomfortable but all-too-human chords within us: those deep, primal and socially unacceptable places hidden inside us where in quiet moments we flirt with a horrific thought or fantasize about doing a desirous but immoral act -- then quickly snap our minds back to a place resembling safety.  Only here director Craig Zobel and his brilliant cast of actors -- most notably a fantastic Ann Dowd, a creepy Pat Healy and a brave Dreama Walker -- do not allow us to return to safety. 

Consequently we are left riveted, alarmed, provoked and gratified for having endured a thoroughly challenging cinematic experience.  Even if it hadn't been based on true events, the spellbinding "Compliance" is authentic, its crazy events entirely plausible, because these, after all, are human beings, and in life, with human beings anything can happen.  No matter how much distance we may claim to have from the stressed-out workers at ChickWich, one thing is inescapable: when we watch these flawed individuals we are watching ourselves.

Also with: Ashlie Atkinson, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Nikiya Mathis, Stephen Payne, Ralph Rodriguez, Desmin Borges.

"Compliance" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and sexual content/nudity.  The film's running time is one hour and 30 minutes.  In New York City exclusively today; expands to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia next Friday.

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