Saturday, April 28, 2012


In Ohio, The Death Of Critical Thinking And The Horrors Of Authoritarian U.S.A.

Dreama Walker as Becky in Craig Zobel's psychodrama "Compliance". 
Magnolia Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, April 28
, 2012

We learn that Craig Zobel's infuriating psychodrama "Compliance", which screened at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival this week (and will again this Sunday), is based on a true story.  We learn that more than 70 cases like the one in the film have occurred in 30 states across the U.S. 

After reading the statistic above, think: Does such a high number of cases really mean that Americans are inherently stupid (or undereducated) people?  Would you believe an anonymous prank caller if he or she suddenly telephoned you to say that they're a police officer and needed to investigate a crime you or another never committed yet they are accusing you or someone else of?  Would you be convinced if the phone voice told you that an employee, neighbor, relative or friend needed to be strip-searched not once but twice, by you or someone else? 

And raped?

In "Compliance" these awful, traumatic events happen to Becky (Dreama Walker), a 16-year-old worker at a fictional ChickWich fast food restaurant in Ohio.  Cooking oil boils, French fries burn.  America's obsession with junk food is stroked in detailed close-ups of food.  ("Did the chicken," as one character will say, "fry these people's brains?"  It's a more than reasonable question to ask.)

Over a restaurant telephone a man who says he's "Officer Daniels" (a creepy Pat Healy, he of Mr. Zobel's "Great World Of Sound") speaks to the beleaguered, overmatched Sandra (Ann Dowd, excellent here), the manager of ChickWich.  Sandra never questions who Daniels is.  Sandra never asks to speak to the ChickWich district manager Daniels says is with him. 

Daniels accuses Becky of a crime: stealing a customer's money in the restaurant.  Becky's protestations are vigorous.  She's never stolen a thing in her life.  Daniels disagrees.  Angered and incredulous, Becky adamantly maintains her innocence.  She's in disbelief at the accusation.  Becky never says, "I'm getting a lawyer, I have nothing more to say to you."  She never hangs up on him.  Never asks who Daniels is.   This anonymous voice has Sandra believing that Becky -- who's been an A-star employee all her years at ChickWich under Sandra's watch -- has stolen a customer's money, even though the "customer" has never come in to confront her, and even though Becky and her co-workers have been at the counter throughout a very busy day without a single incident occurring.

Sandra, by her very standing an authority figure, has a fiancé, Evan (Bill Camp), a blue collar worker who she tells not to drink too much.  Evan's long been a compliant man even before he engages in the film's most troubling and horrific behavior.  Early on Evan asks Sandra for permission to spend time with his buddy.  "You don't have to ask my permission to spend time with your friends," she tells him. 

It's worth noting that Sandra and Becky aren't exactly on good terms.  Is this why things happen the way they do in the film?  Is this the projection of Sandra's own twisted ideas and subliminal desire, to humiliate someone she doesn't really like? 

What makes "Compliance" work is its escalating, slow-burning play on illogic and bizarre reasoning as glimpsed in its aggravating, confounding characters.  People can be so gullible whether they're well-educated or not.  At ChickWich the minimum-wage workers presumably are not: a white board has the word "employees" spelled as "employess".  Ms. Dowd, so good here as the instrumentality of horror via remote control by Daniels, is the film's devastating Nurse Ratched.  Sandra turns hostile to her stalwart employee Becky even when no evidence of theft turns up.  (The case is tailor-made for a huge criminal prosecution and civil suit that would be any trial lawyer or prosecutor's dream.)

When people in real life, in response to illegal, intrusive widespread spy measures on the American public often say things like, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about," -- a bizarre, ass-backwards response to illegality that completely misses the point to begin with -- they commit the same astonishing gaps in reasoning, commonsense and vacancy in critical thinking as the characters in Mr. Zobel's unsettling horror film.  Beneath the film's sensationalist-headline-type surface -- the kind of story you'd see in the "weird news" section -- lies a thought-provoking drama.  Mr. Zobel doesn't showcase stupidity or a lack of critical thinking as much as hold a mirror to its resulting horrors, and his camera neither favors nor judges any participant in this objective but intimately-rendered bit of cinema.

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

The aforementioned "spying is okay if you've nothing to hide" comment that I've seen often on the Internet and television reveals a disturbing model of authoritarianism running deep in the heart of America: a blinding obeisance to authority figures (an rigid adherence often especially prominent in the rudiments of conservative ideology), even when those figures are shown to be wrong or engaging in blatant misconduct and illegality.  (By the way, what about the "spying" part, and when did that ever become okay?)  We've been taught to obey, almost blindly at that.  (The newspaper headlines that end or start with, "the police said".  So that means it must be true because they said it, the thinking goes.) 

There's the power of the Stockholm Syndrome, and the promise to be let go if you say whatever the police want you to during an interrogation.  People, young and old confess to doing things they never have done, in order to escape detention, and Becky complies too, to get out of the detention she's been forced into.  It's sad and truly terrifying that "Compliance" is based on a true story.  How to explain why almost 1000 people were led to their own deaths by Jim Jones years ago?  Deceit?  A trance?  A cult and fervor overwhelming common sense?

Can you see or understand why this happens or is plausible?  A nanosecond of weakness in the limbic system's response, an adrenaline-fueled state, stress, duress, a moment caught off-guard -- I can relate.  Some 22 years ago I headed to an ATM in Greenwich Village, New York City, ready to take out a huge sum of money to give to a complete stranger who said with remarkable conviction that he knew an aunt of mine who urgently needed money.  I was in a relaxed mood that Friday, looking forward to the weekend.

Amazingly the stranger correctly guessed my aunt's name -- or did I supply it to him in a leading manner? -- I don't remember -- and that's the point. 

In "Compliance" Sandra can't even remember how she behaved in key moments toward Becky.  Sandra is shown her behavior on a video and is at a loss for words.  Those moments where something less restrained and ordered than common sense takes over -- those instances where a person ordinarily at rest suddenly snaps and goes on a violent rampage -- those are the seconds of behavioral transition in humans that "Compliance" chronicles.  The film slows these moments to an excruciating crawl, yet they are actually happening faster than the blink of an eye -- a blink we barely see in real time but one that is distended beyond comfort in Mr. Zobel's smart film.

In that New York real-life story I told you: I didn't withdraw any money but managed to get as far as entering my PIN number before abruptly cancelling the attempted transaction as I snapped back to life just in time to the horrific realization of the blinding insanity I was temporarily gripped by -- that yours truly, a vastly more educated person than the characters in "Compliance" -- was *this* close to being suckered into something awful.  All the while during those ten unguarded minutes or less, I hadn't even thought.  (Turns out that I learned later that I actually didn't have an aunt named Rita, and that she was merely a family friend.)  It was as if I was in a trance, under hypnosis. 

Likewise, Mr. Zobel's "Compliance" operates hypnotically, penetrating beyond illogic, rationality and legality in some characters until for a split second some of their behavior may be seen as reasonable or even understandable by some.  It's driven by compliance, something within that tells us that despite our nagging doubts, it's all okay because authority tells us that it is.  "Compliance" is like a Milgram experiment without the guise of electroshock therapy treatment.  The film is a steady diet of human vices, hidden appetites and primal instincts run aghast and wild, all the while with the underlying idea that when authority is transferred to others the power wielded from its assent is bound to be abused.  Power corrupts absolutely, whether given through false pretenses or delegated by an authentic representative.  This adult-type "Lord Of The Flies" specter of ordinary people in extraordinary or adverse circumstances showcases the human animal in a crude, hideous way.

Authority obviously does not always mean certainty, and in true "when the president does it that means that it is not illegal"-style, the more offensive and unsettling Daniels' perverse requests become the more automatic the compliance is.  (At least some characters ask, "why?".)  Even so, Sandra is steadfast in the belief of a voice whose face she's never seen.  This is just one area where the film's true horror lies.  In inventing a crime, Daniels commits one, and Sandra is his agent-executor, abetting the process in a devastating, self-deputizing manner.  Sandra brings a dangerous hybrid to the table: the employer as auto-police officer, with a new level of super-authority going well beyond her bounds as a fast-food manager.  (There's never a security guard on hand to search Becky.  There's never a thought to call police into ChickWich.) 

Does a post-9/11/01 America hasten this kind of policing of others by fellow civilians? 

Ann Dowd (left) as Sandra, and Dreama Walker as Becky in Craig Zobel's psychodrama "Compliance".  Magnolia Pictures

"Compliance", in which adults do heinous, preposterous things, is neither a preposterous nor exploitative film.  At its most exposed moments the film turns away from Becky's nakedness, discreetly moving elsewhere.  While "Compliance" is relentless in its probing of the alienated Becky by the film's characters it is not gratuitous in its look at Becky, whom, granted, spends almost half the film wearing very little.  "Compliance" mines its unassuming Midwestern setting (though it is purportedly shot in New York City) with a familiarity, its cameras intensely close to each of the participants as if trying to rub this cadre of non-thinking, frustrating characters in America's collective face.  "See this, America?  Is this who we truly are?  Why are we so pliable in the face of authority?" 

"Compliance" is about opportunity and the fleeting more so than about the lack of education and the lower classes.  (The rich have been swindled in con games just like the poor have.)

More than once Mr. Zobel tips his hat to Alfred Hitchcock, specifically among other films to the underappreciated "The Wrong Man", the 1956 film also based on a true story, one borne of mistaken identity rather than compliance by Henry Fonda's character, a presence whose certitude is matched by Becky's.  And he has the police in front of him.  (It's no accident that Becky is a blonde.)

As Becky, Ms. Walker is vulnerable and unforgettable.  Her Becky is a symbolic America, a Lady Liberty unmasked and de-blindfolded, given an education in adulthood and a new old American way.  Ms. Walker's near-quivering, terror-stricken eyes and fragile physicality are stark, not arousing, brittle, not sexy.  Becky is humiliated, stripped of control of her own body.  It's wrenching, frightening, unsettling and deeply uncomfortable.  My heart sunk to its depths as Becky was treated not too differently from enslaved Africans on auction on American soil in a not-too-distant past.  The only difference is that instead of also being under threat of death and purchased to be owned forever, Becky's dignity and personhood are absolutely violated at every turn.  Her forced compliance comes at an extreme price, to the point of an acquiescence born of trying to escape her grueling circumstances.

Mr. Zobel's film will certainly trouble many in the U.S.  I suspect that in many parts of America audiences will be outraged enough to heckle the screen (as I did, cursing out some of these aggravating and incredibly pliant characters more than once.)  Some, like the audience I saw this film with in San Francisco, will walk out before the film is far from over.  I counted 30 people leaving, never to return.  Some left in threes and fours.  Many more, to their credit, stayed.  A vast majority in a 200-seat theater.  A fair number applauded.  

Mr. Zobel's two features have focused on scammers, people who trick others but face things they don't expect around the corner.  "Great Wall Of Sound" was snarky and jovial with a bite but "Compliance" is more like an unrelenting but tranquilized shark that shreds one nerve at a time, delicately but deliciously chomping on every last nerve.  We watch "Compliance" and Becky's plight helplessly.  Perhaps our own voyeurism and inherent private perversions compel us to.  Do only those with a higher moral order and comportment instantly walk out of the theater?  Do those who leave turn their backs on Becky as much as on the film itself?  Are those who stay guilty in some way for staying?  Mr. Zobel's film is art that poses to a true Rorschach test to its audience.

Sandra and Evan, while nominal villains, aren't bad people.  They are poster children for a short attention-spanned, overworked America.  So sure is Sandra of Becky's guilt that she gives license to the unthinkable.  On their faces there's a spasm of recognition that they may not be doing things the right way, but all of that is shelved.  The trappings of filmdom mean that "Compliance" may look dopey due to its seemingly low-I.Q. characters -- but the players actually have an awareness and intelligence far stronger than those in conventional horror films who wander around alone in a dark, unfamiliar place.  We chuckle at those horror types -- of which Becky may have been in another movie life -- but scream at the older versions of them in "Compliance" as they do things most would consider ridiculous, foolish and outlandish.  As one U.S. president once said in a situation that could easily apply in Mr. Zobel's film: "it will be no defense to say that you were just following orders."

As horrifying as the events are there's no physical violence in Mr. Zobel's film.  Blood is never shed in "Compliance" but within this audience member (and no doubt others) blood boiled furiously.  Meanwhile, Becky's blood, as well as that of the perpetrators of this film's true grotesque horrors, has long since turned to ice.

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

"Compliance" opens in select U.S. cities on August 17.  (An abbreviated edition of this review is here.)

"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 37 minutes.

Note: "Compliance" screens at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival on Sunday, April 29 at 5:30pm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on Post Street and Fillmore St.

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