Saturday, November 24, 2012


You're unlikely to see a more challenging or unsettling film this year in New Zealand theatres (outside of the Fatso 24 Hour Movie Marathon, anyway) than COMPLIANCE, the second film by director Craig Zobel (after the little-seen, particularly in New Zealand, GREAT WORLD OF SOUND). My viewing last night provoked at least half a dozen walkouts, out of an audience of less than 20. This, despite the fact that there's not a single drop of blood spilled, and the entire film is based on a true story.

"Based on a true story", of course, can easily be code for "very little truth remains", and many seem to be reacting to COMPLIANCE with disbelief. Surely, the events on screen are exaggerated?

They aren't.

A little background. Over the course of 12 years in America, 70 prank calls were made to fast food restaurants or grocery stores by a man claiming to be a policeman. What happened then, I'll save for Wikipedia, though be warned before you go reading that one of the cases there is pretty much beat for beat the inspiration for COMPLIANCE. All those who are wary of spoilers should know is that:

a) the wording of the R16 rating should give you a hint that things go very, very badly and
b) if you are tempted into disbelief during viewing, remind yourself that the most outlandish material in COMPLIANCE is lifted directly from court records. (Zobel asserts this in this highly spoilery but very interesting interview.)

COMPLIANCE is upsetting because we don't want to believe that the film's true. So perhaps it's best to talk about the director's original inspiration for the film, which wasn't the aforementioned case but the Milgram experiments. Psychologist Stanley Milgram oversaw an experiment in which participants were encouraged to administer electro-shock to another person in the service of learning word pairs. (In reality, the electro-shock was faked, but the participant didn't know this.) If the participant displayed reluctance, they were encouraged to continue, even though they could hear their victim's screams.

In the end, fully 65% of the participants were willing to administer the maximum 450-volt shock.

Last night was my second screening of COMPLIANCE, after seeing it at NZFF in July. A first viewing is roughly like getting hit by a bus, where one's immediate visceral emotional response overpowers any ability to rationally break down what's happening. This time I could look more analytically at the techniques used by "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy) on the store's manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) and the young victim Becky (Dreama Walker), as well as the other employees that get sucked into the drama, and, most tragically, the manager's fiance Van (Bill Camp). Everyone believes they're doing the right thing; or, if they realize they aren't, "Officer Daniels" uses other techniques to ensure that they don't have a choice. Or feel like they have a choice. The extent to which those are actually two different things is one of many, many interesting discussions that this film can provoke.

(It's worth taking a moment here to acknowledge the largely stunning performances here; it's rare to see middle America portrayed on screen without condescension, and while Ann Dowd has been justly being praised, she's supported by an excellent ensemble: Bill Camp, in particular, takes an incredibly difficult role and nails it. And I think Dreama Walker's performance is being overlooked in many reviews.)

Anyway: on this watch, what's truly upsetting is how little physical coercion seems to be required to take Becky to the dark places she goes; the ending underscores how difficult it is to reconcile what each person believes about themselves with what they have done. We like to think that we are better than this, both individually and collectively, and indeed one frequent criticism of COMPLIANCE is from viewers who believe that the characters are stupid and that they, the viewer, wouldn't fall for such an obvious ploy.

Choose to believe that if you like. For my part, I'm on the side of A.V. Club writer Sam Adams, who notes in an excellent interview with Zobel: "The primary qualification for falling prey to something like this is being sure you never would."

COMPLIANCE is now screening exclusively in Auckland at Academy Cinemas. They're under new management now; those who have avoided it over the past few years should take note that they've fixed their sound system, and a upgrade to DCP is due within the month so top-quality pictures are hopefully soon to follow. If films like COMPLIANCE are a harbinger of what's to come programming-wise, I suspect I'll be spending a lot of time there; with most other arthouses in Auckland targeting the 60+ market, it's refreshing to have somebody focused on films that aren't safe or easy, but challenging and rewarding.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, let's make this space the spoiler discussion space, for anyone who wants to talk/argue about this film. (I imagine there are a few of you.)

    SPOILERS FOLLOW. (Hopefully.)

    The purpose of the lengthy shot attached to the window of the police car eluded me on a first viewing; it only occurred to me on this viewing that it reveals the precise distance/time from the police station to the restaurant.

    There's been many critics that have argued the film would be better if we never saw "Officer Daniels". I've heard that Zobel cut a version he was absent from, but it didn't work. I imagine that it might become more of a "is he/isn't he" game for the viewer at that point, rather than forcing the character identification that comes from short-circuiting that process. But I'd still love to see it (a la the "Soderbergh cut" of Lodge Kerrigan's KEANE, which was included on that disc).

    One detail that was changed: the profession of the suspect. According to Wikipedia, he worked in corrections, instead of telemarketing.

    The one detail I found slightly disquieting in a non-constructive way on a second viewing - the post-assault cut to a slow pan empty drinking straw. It seemed unnecessarily winky. But I suppose any shot coming out of that would have struggled with being laden with meaning by being what it cut to.

    Most have praised Ann Dowd's performance, but my friend found it awkward, noting that it seemed like she was struggling with it. I disagree - I found that it felt more like a character that was struggling than an actor who was struggling - but curious if anybody else felt that way.