About 25 minutes into Compliance, I wanted to reach into the screen and slap everyone in the face. The urge did not dissipate over the movie’s running time; in fact, it only got worse, as they proceeded along the same path. I don’t know that writer-director Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound, which I loved) would consider that an insult, as the intent is clearly to provoke a strong reaction. But once that is elicited, what’s left? Not enough for my liking. Then again, “liking,” per se, isn’t what you’re supposed to do here anyhow.
The premise is very simple: a busy fast-food restaurant, called Chickwich, gets a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, super-scuzzy and unrecognizable from The Innkeepers). When the overworked manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) picks up the phone, she is told that one of her employees has been accused of theft. She is asked to hold the girl in question, Becky (Dreama Walker), until the cops can get there… oh, and to strip-search her.
You don’t really have to get to the strip-search part to realize something’s up – anyone paying attention will notice pretty quickly that “Officer Daniels” fishes for information and then says it back to people like he’s known it all along, plus he sometimes changes subtle details from his end of the story. He is revealed to the viewer (but not the other characters) as a fraud relatively quickly, but anyone who can identify a sales call will figure it out sooner. That these characters do not – even as he ups the humiliation stakes in a most un-policemanlike way – is the point, and lest you say it couldn’t happen, the movie has the statistics to back up the fact that it did, multiple times.
At the height of the popularity of the Saw series, people liked to inaccurately toss around the term “torture porn,” despite the fact that Saw‘s fast-acting traps don’t really fit the definition of torture. What are we to make of the fact that this film wants us to watch, for an hour and a half, as ordinary people, one after another, are manipulated into abusing the same beautiful young woman, which is certainly torture and verges on porny in its theme? Zobel is not asking us to enjoy it; he seems to want to be Neil LaBute here, but LaBute usually includes more ambiguity and forces the viewer to make the moral judgment by offering none himself. Zobel will quickly elicit a judgment: this is wrong, and someone should have realized it was a con. But we get that in fairly short order, and still have to sit (or not – walkouts are apparently quite common) through that same point being intensified.
The implied issue that arises from all of this is that you, the viewer, think you would know better, but it has happened so often that there’s a better-than-average chance you actually wouldn’t, and you’re kind of a dick for judging these people. Who can say – I got phone-scammed badly out of $300 quite early in my writing career, and have had a keener ear for BS ever since; in other words, there’s a time I might have fallen for it. And what does it all say about our willingness to submit to authority – are we just suckers for anyone saying they’re in charge, or do we actually believe cops are so corrupt that they will ruin our lives if we don’t do exactly what they say, even if such is illegal?
Were this a horror movie, there would be catharsis. Escaping from the ordeal, Becky would find the guy responsible and beat the holy hell out of him. Maybe there’d be a shocking reversal and it would turn out she just mutilated the wrong guy, but you would have had that moment, which is often the reason so many people put themselves through scary movies, just for that release. Zobel doesn’t want you to have that release, which is fair enough. But then you have to ask yourself if you want to be punished by a movie relentlessly pushing an uncomfortable point you rather quickly sussed out.
A fair reviewer is often hard-pressed to penalize a movie for being exactly what it seems its creator wanted it to be. One can, however, warn that it’s thoroughly unpleasant, and not in any fun way.
Compliance opens in theaters today.