Compliance: The True Story Doesn’t Disturb, But Zobel’s Choices Do
There’s a moment in the latter part of Craig Zobel’s Compliance that should make you go back and re-examine why you’ve felt disturbed to that point. It’s easy to blame the plot, inspired by a true series of skin-crawling incidents in which a man pretending to be a cop coerces fast food workers into sexual assault by phone. However, when a scene of forced oral sex is followed with a slow pan of a vertically-standing fast food straw, it becomes apparent that the style in which the story is executed is quite possibly more off-putting than the story itself. Much has been made of the truthfully-disgusting response of “I wouldn’t have behaved like that” that audiences and critics alike have been voicing in regards to Compliance’s characters’ actions. If the film didn’t seem to be making a series of choices to judge and/or discredit its “true story” characters, perhaps fewer people would judge and discredit the characters themselves.
We open at the ChickWich fast food restaurant, where Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager on duty, is getting chewed out for not reporting a freezer mishap which occurred on her watch to her superior. Zobel establishes from the first scene that Sandra is fairly inept and doesn’t like to be made to feel inferior despite her momentary lapses into inferiority. The latter trait is totally acceptable– it’s something most people deal with and it’s Sandra’s most humanizing feature. The former seems like a strange way to set up the character that will be faced with tough moral quandaries later in the plot. Are all fast food managers inept? Do they all prefer to not report mistakes? By introducing us to the character in a situation where mistakes are already being made, it can lead one to the assumption that her behavior throughout the incidents to come are, to the outside viewer, “mistakes” as well. We don’t ask ourselves what we would have done in the same situation, because we have already seen that this woman has had mistakes occur under her watch go unreported. What if the film had presented us with a manager who we didn’t know to make errors in judgment?
As we go around and meet other characters, the problems escalate. Becky (Dreama Walker), the eventual victim of the sexual assault, is a gorgeous young girl of typical Hollywood looks– blond, skinny, pouty lips, etc. The casting decision to put the gorgeous Walker in the role of Becky rather than a girl who looks more like the average 18-year-old raised warning flags for potential audience manipulation when inevitable nude scenes were to occur. Are only beautiful girls the target of this manner of sexual abuse? When we finally get to the nude scenes, Zobel races us down the path to audience manipulation full steam ahead. There have been plenty of unsexy nude scenes in the history of cinema, most of which either focus on the implication of nudity or show full-frontal nudity in a stagnant frame devoid of sexual context. Here, Walker’s breasts are on full display often, and the camera movements in multiple scenes hint that we will see her butt or full frontal nudity, just to cut away before the reveal. It’s as if Zobel is actively trying to tease his attractive young actress’s nudity, which made me squirm in my chair considering the subject matter.
Even more unsettling is the relationship between Becky and Sandra we get to see before the incident occurs. Becky, in one of her very few pre-incident scenes, is revealed to an expert on the habits of sexting– guys have been sending her pictures of their naked torsos, in hopes she’ll send a picture of hers back. She’s extremely blase about the subject, almost yawning while discussing it: she’ll send a picture of her boobs, he’ll send a full frontal picture, she’ll send a full frontal picture, and that’s the order this kind of thing goes in. Again, like Sandra, it’s not that this is an uncommon teen practice… but if this character is representing the teenagers who were manipulated in these incidents, why must our main introduction to her be about her sex life? There are plenty of sexual assault victims who are not sexually active beforehand, and to base her character in her ease with her own naked body, it brings to mind the grossest of pleas that people shout when it comes to sexual assault, “Maybe she secretly wanted to do it.” That’s what Sandra implies by the film’s end– to make matters worse, our only scene between Sandra and Becky at the beginning shows Sandra desperate to fit in with the young girls and their sex talk. When the young girls roll their eyes and laugh at her, there’s a shot of Sandra’s eyes angrily lingering on Becky. Why even give Sandra a personal vendetta against Becky? Again, was every victim of these assaults held down by a manager who they had previously openly scorned? Other characters are given the one-note treatment as well, like the sassy black girl and the drunk redneck construction worker.
Here’s my ultimate problem with the “based-on-a-true-story” conundrum as it exists here and in other poorly made “true stories”: it directly ties the mind of the audience to the real incident, and it implies that this particular telling is important as it reveals something about the human condition. Compliance’s true story is absolutely an important cautionary tale, and there is unquestionably a way to tell this tale, get that message across and raise serious questions in the minds of the viewing audience. What would I have done? I’m a smart individual, and I’d like to think I would’ve done the right thing… but when my back is against the wall, and an authority figure is telling me to break the rules time and time again, would I comply? Most true stories that are made into films are surely brought into this medium under the pretext of the story’s ability to reveal something larger about the human condition or to raise questions we don’t know how to answer. Unfortunately, this particular story must be handled very sensitively to avoid judgment, to avoid discrediting, to avoid misrepresentation, so as to raise these important questions without distraction. Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker give great performances with what they’re given, but sadly Zobel leads the film itself astray.
In addition to the strange script choices and off-putting camerawork, Zobel alleviates a lot of the tension created in the first half by spending the second half cutting away to the caller, played by Pat Healy as a chuckling villain with an affinity for sandwich-making. It takes us out of the room, away from the sweat and discomfort, and into the home of a stereotypical Law & Order: SVU villain (coincidentally, this incident was turned into a Law & Order episode). There are also some beats that play humorous, with oddly quick cuts, suddenly loud music cues, and the horribly tasteless aforementioned straw shot. The straw shot just sums up everything that’s wrong with the film– I could potentially rationalize some of the character choices or camera angles or music cues as Zobel trying to create the most disturbing and offputting scenario imaginable, despite my personal issues with the implications of some of those choices. However, the straw shot is beyond rationalization, and it reveals what must be the filmmaker’s true intentions. Compliance isn’t trying to make us think, it’s trying to shock us under the guise of “indie cinema.” The only thing shocking about Compliance is the wasted opportunity.