To me, there is a marked difference between an “exploitation film” and a “film about exploitation.” Directors like Meir Zarchi, William Freidkin and Lars von Trier have made their bones crafting, I believe, exploitation films. They use characters to explore the misery and depravity of humanity. Their films are usually shot with a repellently lurid gaze, almost as if they are inviting the audience to share their gleeful fascination with the horrible treatment of their (usually female) subjects. Sure, the perversity of those filmmakers can be thoroughly entertaining, occasionally moving or appropriately provocative, but to what extent are those directors actively reflecting that same lurid gaze back onto the audience? Is the exploitation film director actually challenging his audience to engage with their own shame while gazing at the subject, or does he treat his film more like some kind of voyeuristic glory-hole – an outlet for the viewer to engage their most unnerving fantasies, thereby leaving the option available afterward to determine whether or not they need to come to terms with those feelings?
With his deeply controversial new film Compliance, Craig Zobel proves he is a director who makes movies about exploitation. Based on the true story of a phone prankster whose actions precipitate in the rape of a young woman, Zobel makes it a point never to ignore the audience’s discomforted interaction with what is happening onscreen. As a result, the film never feels seedy in the exploitation it depicts; the audience instead remains actively engaged with each blood-curdling moment of onscreen confusion and manipulation. Compared to how exploitation is explored in an “exploitation film,” Zobel opts for the smarter and perhaps more intrinsically moral approach to the material. Compliance is likely the most difficult, grueling, horrifying experience I’ll have at the movies this year. But it will probably go down as one of the best as well.
Compliance takes place almost entirely on a busy Friday evening at a popular fast food establishment. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the store’s frazzled, middle-aged manager, is left to juggle several balls that particular night. In addition to Friday being the week’s biggest sales night, an employee left the refrigerator open, destroying (and depleting) $1,400 of food products. With a secret shopper rumored to be coming in that night, Sandra is also tasked to motivate a group of disengaged teenage employees into doing their job well. Early in the night shift, Sandra receives a call from a man claiming to be with the police. Calling himself Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), he accuses one of her employees of having stolen money from a customer earlier that day. Daniels’ physical description of the thief singles out a young cashier named Becky (Dreama Walker). Daniels claims he is unable visit the restaurant right away to question Becky and apprehend her, so he asks Sandra to orchestrate – with the assistance of her (mostly male) subordinates – an invasive body search of the accused on his behalf. Unwittingly – and incredulously – the reluctant Sandra cooperates fully.
Compliance is already notorious for its sharply divided response at Sundance earlier this year, inspiring walkouts, jeers and considerable antagonism at the post-screening Q&A. Even the advanced screening I attended experienced numerous walkouts of its own. The film pushes the audience to react this way, I believe, in two crucial ways, with the first surrounding the film’s most difficult polemic: is the movie itself complicit in the exploitation of Becky, a petite, conventionally attractive girl who is coerced (forced?) into a horrifically degrading scenario? While I staunchly disagree with the affirmative argument, it is an understandable conclusion to arrive to. Compliance is agonizingly deliberate in how it depicts the abuse. Each act that Becky is pressured into making is roughly a half-notch higher than the last, mounting the tension at a pace that tests the audience’s patience and their stomach. The movie’s runtime is ninety minutes, but it feels twice as long.
Yet an argument could be made that such deliberation, as unbearable as it is, is actually a bizarre exercise in restraint. The whole time, the viewer is anticipating the moment where Daniels’ abusive manipulation hits its apex; a point where Becky’s abuse can be taken no further. Watching the movie, the audience tacitly – and weirdly – begs for that moment, as they want desperately to assure themselves that the worst is over. Perversely, however, there is something profoundly disturbing about feeling such anticipation – about actually wanting the “worst” to happen to Becky. In filming Compliance like a slow-motion train wreck, Zobel prolongs that desire for release, and forces us into a position to more directly identify with Becky’s agony. It helps that there is no sense of glee whatsoever to Zobel’s camera; he makes it a point to linger on Dreama Walker’s face the whole time, and not the body being violated. These strangely tasteful decisions – backed by wonderful performances by Walker and Dowd – help ensure subject of Compliance never becomes the object. I’m not sure how much more delicately such exploitation could have been handled.
The second issue I imagine audiences having with Compliance is in its perceived credulity. So much of the film’s credibility operates on the believability of Sandra’s decision to follow Officer Daniels’ odious instruction. It does not help how painfully obvious Daniels’ charade is from the get-go. The movie is bound to inspire grimaces of frustration over Sandra’s, for lack of a better term, incompetence. The movie functions on a clear deficit of logic, but to criticize Compliance for that is not only to demonstrate relative arrogance, but to miss the movie’s point entirely. Sure, you could counter that the movie is based on a true story (almost as a pre-emptive measure, the movie opens with such a disclaimer), but that doesn’t really defend the movie as a dramatic work. The point of Zobel’s movie, in addition to being about exploitation, is to tell a story about the depths to which any of us might be willing to sink, purely at the behest of authority.
Zobel provokes the audience to consider not how much smarter they would have been in Sandra’s lieu, but instead to empathize with her – to consider the hints scattered throughout the movie that might lead to a better understanding of how she gets duped into doing what she does. Zobel asks these questions not to let Sandra off the hook for Becky’s abuse, not to vilify her, but to understand her and to have us, as viewers, reflect on the ramifications of our own complicit actions we partake in daily, big and small. Compliance, like Sandra, is likely to be wildly misunderstood by those who don’t even bother to dig a bit deeper. If you are brave enough to give it a chance, I beg you to endure the whole movie, to ask questions and to bring some empathy to the table. If you do this, Compliance just might become a reward; not a punishment.
Bottom Line: Compliance is the year’s most brutal movie-going experience by far, but those who engage the material will discover a challenging film of remarkable empathy.