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Saturday, April 28, 2012
In Ohio, The Death Of Critical Thinking And The Horrors Of
Dreama Walker as Becky in Craig Zobel's psychodrama "Compliance".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
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
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
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.
Dowd, excellent here as Sandra, in Craig Zobel's psychodrama "Compliance".
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
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
"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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