Compliance: Sundance Torture Porn

The year's squirmiest movie proves you don't need a social scientist's lab to test the limits of the harm people will inflict on others. A fast-food joint will do fine.

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Alliance Films

The workers at a ChickWich franchise store in Ohio anticipate a harried night. The supply of bacon and tomatoes is low because one of the staff left the refrigerator open. A spy from the home office may stop by to conduct an undercover survey. The manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is short of help, and her underlings face their jobs with the passive resistance of the bored stiff. And now there’s a call from some cop — Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), he says — informing Sandra that one of her employees has stolen money from a customer’s purse. The suspect is blond, and 19 or 20. Probably a million young women at fast food joints fit that description; so does Becky (Dreama Walker) over at the cash register. When Sandra asks, “Becky?”, Daniels says yes.

For the next hour of Compliance, which an opening statement declares is “inspired by true events,” everyone at this ChickWich says yes in response to the orders barked or whispered into the phone: Go through Becky’s purse; confine her to the back office; tell her she can’t leave or she’ll go to jail. Strip-search her. The demands become more extreme, exploitative, criminal — yet Sandra, two other employees brought into the back room and, finally, Sandra’s boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) find it hard to resist the voice of authority. In a way, they’re Daniels’ deputies. And they’re only following orders.

(READ: Why We’re OK With Hurting Strangers)

Germans in the 1930s and ’40s weren’t the only decent people who did dreadful things because an authority figure told them to. Almost anyone is capable of being persuaded that some horrible tactic, at work or in personal relationships, is necessary for the greater good. Those were the findings of the experiments Stanley Milgram held at Yale in 1960: instructing subjects to inflicting an electric shock on an unseen person, and commanding them to keep increasing the voltage, no matter how much the person screamed in agony. More than 60% of those tested administered what they were told was the full 450 volts. The “victims” were actors; there was no shock — except to the subjects when they finally learned the purpose of the experiment. The only possible variable: Not all the subjects may have truly believed they were inflicting pain. Some may have intuited the hoax.

In writer-director Craig Zobel’s “experiment,” the subjects can see their victim — a pretty coworker — and know they are harming her and demeaning themselves. The voice of the cop is by turns threatening and flattering, confidential and persuasive; it issues commands (“I need you to give her a spanking”) and empathetic rationalizations (“You think I like situations like this?”). His great coup is convincing Becky to submit (“You can go to jail, or you can let this guy inspect you”). Next thing, the naked young woman is bending over….

(READ: Bruce Crumley on the French TV doc The Game of Death)

Another difference between Milgram’s and Zobel’s tests: here, the subjects are both on the screen and in the audience. Because the characters are borderline-believable and the filmmaking style all but invisible, accentuated by the ominous strings of Heather McIntosh’s score, Compliance is an ordeal for those watching no less than those performing. Many viewers at its Sundance Film Festival premiere felt so violated that they walked out, or stayed to boo the director and his stars. The movie dares spectators to stick around and, implicitly, become accessories to the crime.

Horror movies routinely do play this strategy: let audiences think they’re identifying with the hero/heroine/victim, when they’re really rooting for the psycho killer to keep raping and stabbing until the last five minutes, or maybe beyond. (There may be a sequel.) It’s Hollywood’s R-rated version of torture porn. On the art-house side, a filmmaker like Michael Haneke confronts this sado-voyeuristic impulse directly. Awful things happen, and we’re made to watch. It’s the implicit compact any moviegoer makes with what he’s about to see, only pushed to punishing levels. It’s also a man, usually, directing a woman, usually, to undergo psychic terrors. Alfred Hitchcock did that frequently; ask Tippi Hedren, his leading actress in The Birds and Marnie.

(READ: Corliss on Why Orson Welles, Not Hitchcock, Made the Best Movie Ever)

Haneke employed this method — trapping a decent couple in a home broken into by two sick thugs— in his 1997 German-language Funny Games, which he remade, shot for shot, in English in 2007 with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as rthe endangered couple and Michael Pitt as one of the nasty perps. Funny Games dared viewers to walk out in anger. (Halfway through the original movie’s world premiere in Cannes, I took the bait and bolted.) Haneke’s Caché, in 2005, played a game similar to the one in Compliance: a Paris couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receive disquieting phone calls, as well as surveillance videos and threatening drawings, from someone who seems to know everything about them.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s review of Michael Haneke’s Caché)

Craig Zobel means to be our own, homegrown Haneke. His first feature, Great Wall of Sound, cast Healy, the Compliance phone caller, as a con man who gets aspiring American Idols to invest $3,000 in a recording session they think will be sent to record companies. There the lie was a promise rather than a threat. But many of the aspirants in his movie were not actors; they were amateur singers who believed this was their one chance at stardom. (Zobel later obtained releases from the dupes.)

Compliance pushes the theory of ordinary folks following their foolish dreams or acceding to a stranger’s sick fantasies to its logical, misanthropic conclusion. In an interview with Daniel Schweiger of Buzzine, he recalled that in college a friend made a prank phone call imitating a campus security guard; the caller was sentenced to community service. Zobel’s new movie is the toxic version of that familiar story, springboarding from some 70 examples in 35 states of callers wheedling people into behavior they surely thought they’d never perform. Sandra’s explanation at the end: “I did what I was told to do.”

(READ: A “Shock School” for Autistic Children)

The cast of not-so-well-known acquits itself honorably. Dowd’s Sandra, browbeaten by a produce supplier in the first scene, is ripe for intimidation by Daniels and to turn from the abashed to the abuser when told to. Walters’s ordeal is very much like Becky’s; an appealing figure of both pity and exploitation, the actress must strip to her essence in a scene that usually would be designed for erotic arousal but here is a form of torture for the character, the actress and any viewer with a conscience. As Sandra’s lover Van, Bill Camp deftly juggles the moral imperative of doing no harm with the practical demands of a policeman on the phone. Camp’s face after Van accedes to Daniel’s final order looks permanently drained of life, hope and self-respect.

I haven’t mentioned everything that happens in Compliance. but I’ll just say it’s a tough sit — especially since its hour-and-a-half running time is about 20 mins. more than the story warrants. (The film’s last act has stretch marks.) I suspect you’ve already decided if you want to subject yourself to the movie, as you would to a haunted house ride that takes place inside your skull. If this riveting, repelling film is to be seen, it must be not at home but in a theater, where you are confined in a room, like Sandra and Becky, deciding whether to watch, and how you would react.

5 comments
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lolcopter
lolcopter

i watched the film without any idea was it was about. i can't count the times i said "aw come on, man!" all throughout the film. then finally at the end when they said there were 70 similar incidents reported in the US. OMFG! aw come on, america! put the effing phone down. geesez!

ocokanet
ocokanet

This movie reveals and aproves that all Americans are stupidity and narrow-mindedness, and it's significant how they ridicule themselves... LOL. ))) Ha ha. You are idiots

Masofon
Masofon

This plot line....is also very similar to an episode of Law and Order?

theWORD
theWORD

COMPLIANCE is a ripoff of a 2008  Law amp; Order: Special Victims episode, guest starring Robin Williams: http://www.tv.com/shows/law-or... The 2008 TV episode and the 2012 movie want has to wonder why this wasn't mentioned at the screenings of where Director/Writer Craig Zobel was talking about his inspiration for the flick. Also check out http://hunterword.com/articles... for more background info.

stratusmonkey
stratusmonkey

The plot, as you've described it, sounds disturbingly similar to a real 1990's employment lawsuit out of southern Illinois. Toothman v. Hardee's Food Systems. I wonder if the writers were aware of it.