film reaction: Compliance

This is no Land Without Bread, but it's still a pretty effective skewering of bourgeois morality.

Directed by Craig Zobel
90 min, United States, 2012

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This is no Land Without Bread, but it’s still a pretty effective skewering of bourgeois morality.

I did some cursory research on the incident that “inspired” this film, incredulous that such a thing could possibly happen — a man claiming to be a police officer convinces a fast food manager to strip search an employee looking for evidence of theft; this eventually leads to a sexual assault. Apparently, it did happen, as did several other similar incidents with a similar MO. (A man was tried and acquitted for some of these crimes. That sounds like the real story.)

For the most part, the film follows the broad outline of what was reported to have happened and hits all the major events of one particular incident at a McDonald’s, including the rape. How Compliance depicts this strip-search scam has pissed a few people off, including during the Q&A after the film premiered at Sundance, and including someone on Letterboxd in a fairly apoplectic review, calling some aspects of the film “inappropriate,” “wrong-headed,” “perverse” and “bullshit.” Whew.

I found the overall tone of the film to be rather cool and restrained, and shot resourcefully. Nearly every shot uses selective focus, making the interior of the ChickWich feel bigger than it is, but I never really got a clear map of anything behind the counter and cashier. The still lifes, in particular, and the single-shot macro work combined with rack focusing beautifully established a sense of place and mood, making strange a quotidian location. The previously mentioned Danny Baldwin seems to think that using one’s filmmaking chops to tell a story is reason enough to hate this movie or suspect its motives. (Kathryn Bigelow gets a pass for Zero Dark Thirty, presumably because she won an Oscar.)

Compliance doesn’t so much have an undercurrent of class condescension, as it would have if this were a Coen brothers movie, but it does try very hard to manipulate the audience’s expectations. The characters in this film say and do absurd things, but still I think the degree to which you laugh at this movie or find the characters’ behavior funny rather than unsettling, reflects more on your own class allegiances than on the filmmakers’, or on your own feeling of superiority that it couldn’t happen to you. If you laugh, you’ve been caught out. If you get angry, you’re in denial. Compliance tweaks the liberal biases of certain audience members by provoking the denialists pretty effectively.

But ultimately, the film critiques and reveals a system of control, and the weak-minded people who are entrapped by it. And sorry, I’m going to dismiss out of hand any objections to showing the victim topless as being misogynist or exploitive. The shooting style employed goes out of its way to avoid prurience. During the first shot of Rebecca interrogated without her top, the camera ducks behind a shelving unit almost as if embarrassed, and I just don’t know how much more careful the forced oral sex scene could have been shot and edited without being indecipherable.

The manager Sandra, who is almost immediately convinced of the authority of the crank caller, is played by a very resourceful, composed and committed Ann Dowd. There are a couple attempts to make this character into a pathetic figure, or at least as one isolated from the realities of her employees’ lives, and in this the film is less assured and convincing. However, based on my own experience with low-paid managers, the self-aggrandizement and the brand loyalty seem like shrewd observations to me, if not unique ones. The film ends with a news interview with Sandra as she tries to explain her actions. The interviewer asks her if she’s a victim, too, and she eagerly agrees. The ways that she is and the ways that she’s not are the very interesting moral questions that this film raises.

Note: I realized as I was reposting this that in my initial response to Compliance I left out any examination of the parts of the movie I didn’t like. In particular, when the actual perpetrator of the prank appears on screen, the tone of film seems glib and sarcastic, too closely reflecting this man’s mood, rather than cool and satirical. This is a major flaw, in my mind, but it doesn’t take away completely the power of the events shows in the Chickwich and their implications for life outside of it.

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