Cinema as a form of escapism takes a hard beating in Craig Zobel’s squirm-inducing debut feature Compliance. Fresh from Sundance, it has been immediately branded with words as sharp as razors, calling it ‘misogynistic’, ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘masochistic’ – an inflamed reaction that will no doubt become choleric when it gets distributed around the globe. The film unravels in real-time a prank phone-call incident in a fast-food chain that horribly and painstakingly transforms into a case of sexual assault – a based-on-true-events crime procedural that provoked mid-movie walkouts in the film screening I’ve attended in the London Film Festival circuit.
Such fevered reactions come to no surprise. There are moments in Zobel’s clinical and surprisingly restrained reconstruction that make you want to throw something on screen and condemn the characters damning lack of fucking common sense. If it involved a more reasonable, informed individual, one could have detected right away that the man on the phone is not a policeman and is actually taking the piss on two women: a good-natured yet astronomically ignorant store manager Sandra, and a pretty yet unwordly employee Becky, who is accused of theft and is forced to a physically and psychologically degrading strip-search. There is, without a doubt, a sheer spectacle of naivety on display here, made all the more disturbing that this actually happened not only once but seventy-one cases across America. But throwing something onscreen and walking out of the film might prove something else – it’s either blatant intellectual superiority or viewers’ denial of reality. Those who have walked out are completely missing the point here – Zobel’s intention is to portray human gullibility in its most profoundly distressing and outrageous form, as huge and confrontational as the twenty-foot high, retina-jabbing disclaimer at the beginning: BASED ON REAL EVENTS. You’ll be surprised how close to reality Zobel’s screenplay is.
As the phone call escalates more and more like a revolting nightmare, characters are becoming more helpless with Sandra follows just about any task Officer Daniels instructs through the phone as part of investigative procedure. While the film is not entirely successful, there are scenes that drag in repetition, the characters suffer, and in turn, the audience too. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable moviegoing experience you’ll have for a long time, forcing us to take a cold, hard look at the point-blank obedience to so-called ‘authority’ inherent in the society we live in. Zobel knows this is provocative material, one that will surely hit some raw nerve, but he neither oversteps the mark nor exploit the subject matter. The most perverse scenes happen off-camera, and Zobel focuses not on the body parts but the human faces – Dreama Walker’s slow, devastating descent into shell-shock moral violation, Ann Dowd’s blasé, blunt complicity and Pat Healy’s disquieting manifestation of the banality of evil. It’s appropriate, then, that Compliance ends with Dowd’s face, as she is questioned how on Earth she easily complied to an unseen force. This is a woman who bears no understanding of her ethical responsibility as a human being – a subordinate, unquestioning, dumbed-down sheep steered and manipulated by wolves.
You may actively condemn Compliance for its unpleasantness, but there’s no denying the kick it sends to the guts. It’s a merciless piece of cinema that’s uncomfortable, appalling and provocative all at once, a film that compels us to take a hard look at a disquieting spectacle of ignorance – the human tragedy to blindly follow, obey and concede to authority without asking ‘why’.