This first-rate American indy film, which I saw a few days ago, has been labeled “possibly the most disturbing movie ever made,” and I reckon that it is indeed. I was extremely uncomfortable during stretches of it, finding it almost unbearable to watch at points, though there is no violence. No one gets physically hurt. More than one French critic has called it a “psychological horror film” and that it is. Leaving the theater I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me, and all the more so as the movie is based on actual events and is utterly believable. It’s an absolute must see: and particularly for those who wish to understand the psychological process that leads people in authoritarian regimes to passively acquiesce—or seem to—in authority that is, on the face of it, not legitimate. And more relevantly for most of those reading this: how it is that citizens in otherwise advanced, democratic polities obey authority that appears, on the face of it, to be legitimate but may, in fact, be arbitrary and/or not legitimate. I will let David Denby of The New Yorker describe the film
When “Compliance” was shown at the Sundance Festival, last January, some people in the audience got so upset that they started shouting during the screening; others simply walked out. Watching “Compliance” recently, I also began to squirm and talk back, but not because I disliked the movie, which I think is brilliant. American movies are saturated in physical violence; this one is devoted to spiritual violence. “Compliance,” an independent film written and directed by Craig Zobel, is about something serious—our all too human habit of obedience when we are faced with authority. The movie is driven by an urgent moral inquiry, yet it has the mesmerizing detail and humor of a very idiosyncratic fiction. Zobel’s setting is a fast-service chicken franchise in Ohio. The sixtyish Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager, has a lot on her hands—a heavy Friday-night crowd, not enough bacon in the larder, and a few young employees who slack off when they can. The phone rings: a man identifying himself as a police officer (Pat Healy) says that one of the girls working the front counter, Becky (Dreama Walker), a pretty teen-age blonde, has stolen some money from a customer’s purse. He has the victim sitting next to him, he says, and also surveillance footage of the crime. Sandra, a good-natured sort but eager to stay in control, then does what he instructs her to do—confronts the baffled Becky in a back room, searches her things, and, finally, strip-searches her. (The cop says it’s easier than hauling Becky down to the station and booking her.) The customers come and go, the fries sizzle in fat, the bacon runs out. Sandra, as she deals with the police, keeps the restaurant working, while the other employees, fond of Becky but hapless, take part in her detention and humiliation, doing what the man on the phone orders. Zobel works close to his characters, catching them at moments of doubt before they press ahead. The actors, inspired by the attempt to do something daring, display a perfect balance of casualness and intensity. For this fable to work at all, you have to believe everything in it, and experience the girl’s plight as a genuine violation. I didn’t detect a false note: the rhythm of the movie is workaday and unforced, the restaurant details so oddly right that you feel sure you understand everyone who works there.
In the old days of Soviet police terror, the man on the phone would have been a smashing success: he’s polite, reasonable, seemingly candid, but dominating and manipulative. Our suspicions, as an audience, are aroused from the beginning. Is he really a cop? A prankster? Perhaps the call is part of some dubious psychological experiment, like the notorious Milgram and Zimbardo affairs, in which university psychologists successfully ordered willing subjects to commit cruelties against other subjects. The people at the franchise are all decent enough, and it’s enraging to see them so easily bullied—that’s why you feel like shouting at the screen. Of course, none of them are too swift. Who ever heard of a cop remaining on the phone for an hour in order to persuade people at a crime scene to do police work? Why doesn’t anyone call a lawyer—or simply call the police to find out what in the world is going on? The answer is that the employees are all caught in a web of coercion in which they want to please their master, and each cruel act they commit seems to set up and justify the next. They want to get the affair over with. “Compliance” is a small movie, but it provides insight into large and frightening events, like the voluntary participation of civilians in the terrible crimes of the last century. For the record, the movie is based on “police” telephone calls made during the past two decades to McDonald’s and other such franchises, after which managers performed strip searches on female employees. I hasten to add that “Compliance” is not an exposé of fast-food working conditions. Zobel and his actors and crew have discovered something cold and lewd in the human heart and have found an effortlessly expressive way of dramatizing it.
Denby is dead on target here. There were moments when I wanted to shout at the screen. And there wasn’t a false note in the film, though one particularly excruciating scene toward the denouement was a stretch—though maybe it wasn’t. What is so disturbing about the film is all in the title: of unquestioning compliance with authority, or, rather, with a man—and it’s invariably a man—who presents himself as representing authority, who has the voice of authority, is unquestioningly deferred to as a consequence, and who warns of serious consequences if his authority is not deferred to. And the syndrome is universal, be it at a fast-food restaurant in the American heartland—or in Spain, or India, or most anywhere—, in France during the occupation, the Soviet Union, Iraq under Saddam, Tunisia under Ben Ali, and you name it. And no one can confidently assert in advance how he or she would react if s/he were in the shoes of the restaurant employees in the film (for the actual incident from which it is inspired, go here, though—spoiler alert—one may want to read it only after seeing the film).
Now there were critics who did pan the film and found it not believable, e.g. Joe Morgenstern of the WSJ, who called it
a tin-eared clunker that depicts its working-class characters with almost palpable scorn—everyone is stupid or morally obtuse
And this from Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe
there is a level of stupidity displayed by the people in this movie that beggars belief. Their behavior is to stupidity as the Death Star is to a doughnut. Anyone in this country who has seen a minimum of two episodes of a TV crime series — which is to say, everyone in this country over the age of 7 — knows at least a little bit about police procedure: the accused’s right to make a phone call, being read the Miranda warning, how understandably proprietary cops are about what they do, stuff like that. About two minutes into Officer Lewis’s phone call any one of those people will figure out what’s going on. About five minutes into the phone call, that same person will begin to wonder why no one in the movie has. And about 15 minutes into the phone call, that person may recall a presumably apocryphal story about Pia Zadora.
I quote these two critics because they are so wrong and need to be responded to, as at least a few who see the film will no doubt agree with them. The film absolutely does not treat its characters with scorn, nor does it make them out to be stupid. Which is not to say that they may not be—the overall IQ level of the characters is probably not at the top of the chart, though it’s not on the lower end either—but that’s not the issue. It is no coincidence that, with one exception, the restaurant employees are all women and/or teenagers—and the one character who gets mixed up in the affair from outside the restaurant is an adult male who’s had too much to drink. And they are all in a state of economic precariousness, in that if they lose their jobs—and that sword hangs over all their heads, and the man on the telephone knows it and plays on it—they are really up the creek. In America one used to be able to take that job and shove it, but no longer.
The characters in the film are thus precisely the type who will readily defer to the instructions of a man the phone identifying himself as a police officer and who speaks like one, who tells them that if they do what he says everything will be fine, but if they don’t, there will be trouble. And the last thing they want is trouble. His voice is authoritative, soothing when it needs to be, and there is no a priori reason for them to distrust it. The teen employees, along with their late 50ish boss, may have seen plenty of cop shows on TV but it will not occur to them to invoke Miranda rights, call a lawyer, or tell the man who identified himself as a police officer that what he was asking of them was not legal. 19-year olds tend not to have that presence of mind when dealing with a cop, nor would the overwhelmed manager of a store or restaurant who has no time for distractions and wants the police inquiry to be over as quickly as possible. If the officer had lodged his outrageous requests at the outset, there would have been suspicion—and likely outright rebellion—, but as a skilled pervers narcissique, he knew how to slowly but surely manipulate those on the other end of the line into his engrenage. They were frogs in the pot of water slowly heated to boiling.
It may be parenthetically observed that Americans do have a particular respect for police officers, for the man with a badge upholding the law. Watching American movies and TV series in France, one is struck by the image of the single cop in his cop car in the baddest part of town, ordering the baddest gangbangers to put their hands up against a wall, and with the latter meekly complying. Such a scene is inconceivable in France, needless to say. Not that the French don’t comply with authority in so many other ways, but agents with badges just don’t enjoy that kind of deference here. I am continually amazed, when traveling to the US, of how Americans passively put up with the indignities of the TSA security gauntlet at airports, even allowing TSA agents to touch their “junk,” the refusal of which would cause them to miss their flights (no French airport security agent would ever try to touch your “junk,” that I promise). In the movie it took one man, the grizzled, gruff part-time custodian, who wasn’t going to be intimidated by anyone, to quickly figure out what was going on.
The acting in the film is excellent, and particularly of the man calling himself a police officer (Pat Healy). US and French reviews are tops, though with the inevitable detractors (and one may want to avoid reading the reviews until after seeing the film). One critic strongly recommended seeing the film in a cinema rather than at home, so one will feel the claustrophobia of the characters. If you’re going to see it at home, please pledge not to stop it and/or walk away in the middle. Watch it to the end (and at 1 hour 30 minutes, it’s not long). One other thing: it’s the kind of film that lends itself to discussion, no question about that, so it’s good to see with other people.
ADDENDUM: Here’s the beginning of Justin Chang’s review of the film in Variety (Jan. 21, 2012)
In taut, gripping and deeply disturbing fashion, writer-director Craig Zobel measures the depths to which rational individuals will sink to obey a self-anointed authority figure in “Compliance.” … [T]his stealth psychological horror film is at once tough to turn away from and, by design, extremely difficult to watch as it grimly assesses the human capacity for sheeplike naivete under duress. Received at its Sundance premiere with a smattering of outraged boos, it’s a surefire conversation-starter that, with smart handling, could prove a boon to a daring distrib.
If nothing else, the accusations of sexual exploitation lobbed by a few hostile members of the film’s world-premiere audience serve as a testament to just how effectively “Compliance” gets under the viewer’s skin. Yet Zobel, who previously directed 2007′s “Great World of Sound,” is no irresponsible provocateur. From its expert performances and carefully researched material to its dead-on evocation of life behind the counter at an average Middle American burger joint, this is intelligent low-budget filmmaking that handles its risky subject matter with taste and discipline.
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