Written and Directed by Craig Zobel
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I know, but when I see a title like Compliance, a red flag goes up in my head. It’s one thing to make a title short (Jaws is brilliant) but it’s another to give away the entire movie’s theme right off the bat. (Gee, I wonder what Shame is about. Perhaps it’s about doubt? No, that’s probably Doubt. What do you think the characters achieve in the movie Atonement? And so on.) When a writer/director/producer/studio chooses a title like Compliance, they’re announcing to the world that their movie is About Something That Should Be Taken Seriously, unlike those plebeian popcorn flicks with actually-great titles such as Drag Me To Hell or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. As a result, I tend to avoid such seemingly one-note movies. But, I am also ever critical of my arbitrary biases, so I recently decided to test my hypothesis by Netflix-ing this one.
It just so happens that this movie couldn’t validate my childish prejudice any more than it does, because it’s absolutely nothing beyond the point it’s trying to make. It’s an excruciatingly simple-minded and overblown illustration of Milgram’s experiment on willing compliance to perceived authority, with a barebones thriller structure. The premise comes from a decade-long spree of prank phone calls in the late 90’s and early 00’s, particularly, the Mount Washington, Kentucky incident. As the story goes, a guy impersonating a police officer calls a fast food restaurant manager and accuses a young female subordinate of theft. Eventually, he’s able to manipulate the manager, over the phone, into strip-searching the employee, presumably to get off on it. Compliance’s stark, self-serious imagining of this incident gets old fast, and absurd shortly thereafter.
It fails most severely due to its lack of watchable characters. A movie risks becoming tedious if its characters do not serve the story, but can still be somewhat entertaining if the characters are at least engaging in their own right. On the other hand, when the characters in a movie do nothing but serve the story, the movie is almost never enjoyable. A good script will always allow its characters room to breathe, stretch their legs, and generally just act like people do. It doesn’t matter how contrived or desperate a situation is, people are never as one-dimensional as they’re often portrayed in heavily utilitarian screenplays such as the one for Compliance.
Every character in this movie is a rigidly scripted device. They’re all so flatly conceived, and their lines are so lazily and predictably composed, that they feel like mere cogs in the machinery of the overall concept, and not at all like human beings reacting to extreme circumstances. When they aren’t saying things that merely lubricate the increasingly ridiculous plot, they’re hurriedly spouting what the screenwriter must imagine to be ‘realistic’ banter, which at times is embarrassingly underwritten. Here’s how Zobel chooses to characterize the narrative’s anchor character:
- She recently changed iPhone cases because “the jewels and stuff starting falling off” her old one.
- Her new boyfriend Marco wants to sext, and she’s hesitant, however, “he has really good abs”.
- She “really can’t be not working right now”.
That’s the complete extent of the character development we get for her before the plot takes over. (And that last characterization is supposed to secure our sympathy for her, I guess.) This is a movie about the plight of a girl at the hands of a puppeteered complier—it would help the movie’s case if said girl wasn’t immediately painted as a farcically stupid and obnoxious Teen Everygirl.
The drama kicks in before the 10-minute mark, and at this point, all attempted characterization ceases and lunacy begins. Tell me: if you were under the impression that you were on the phone with a police officer, how would you take the following instructions? (I’m quoting word for word.)
“What style of panties does she have? … [heavy sigh] … uhh, yeah you’re gonna need to take those off. … What about her rear? Did you make her turn around? … I’m gonna need you to take all the clothes… put everything in the bag, put the bag in the front seat of your car, and leave it unlocked so we can inspect it as soon as we get there. … I’m gonna need you to describe her body. … Is she shaved?”
Seems legit, no? The puppet master’s cajoling gets even more blatant as the film goes on, and for most of the movie’s runtime, this perverse nonsense doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Not once do they question the credentials or motivations of this obvious creeper, nor the insane logic of his demands, nor why the fuck a police officer would be demanding on the phone that a restaurant manager’s husband forcibly strip search a teenage girl suspect. In the actual real life case, the manager’s husband is clearly an opportunistic pervert who relished the excuse to sexually exploit someone. But in the movie, they make him out to be as much a clueless victim as anyone else.
I can’t end my thoughts on this shit movie without bringing up another of its horrendous aspects: the visuals. Compliance subscribes to the cinematographic school of amateurish wankery. Most of its scenes are comprised of boring medium close-up shots of one person standing in a room talking on a phone. The handheld up-closeness of the camerawork is claustrophobic and can do nothing but hang on oafish expressions because the locations (back offices and storerooms) are so cramped. And the occasional wider shots of the characters are infuriatingly shaky. When the camera is occasionally set free from the confines of these rooms, it spends time aimlessly wandering the set. We’re treated to countless distracting shots of random objects filling the frame in ‘meaningful’ analytical close-ups. The crème de la crème of these is a shot that pulls focus on some french fries—its pointlessness beggars belief. I know exactly where this sort of shit comes from, as does anyone who remembers getting their hands on a nice video camera for the first time. You wander around framing and pulling focus on random things, either for practice or because you’re just mesmerized by the fact that you’re looking through the lens of a camera. But you don’t put that sort of garbage in a movie!
Of all the one-note indie dramas that beat the dead horse of their themes into oblivion, Compliance may be the least subtle. Everything is presented with such a dopey, unrelenting obviousness that any attempt at dramatic conceit just fails. Every single thing that happens is narrated explicitly by the characters as they deal with the guy on the phone, as though we, the audience, are as dumb as the characters. And it tries so hard to be About Something that it falls flat on its face, and neither emotionally fulfills nor enlightens. It ends up mere shock drama that exists solely to provoke a gut reaction of uneasiness. Every time the exploitation one-ups itself, we the audience are expected to fume all the more. This gimmick might work on simple folk, but it left me slapping my forehead every step of the way.
1 out of 5 grease burns.