In Defense of “Compliance,” Sundance’s Most Divisive Movie

In Defense of "Compliance," Sundance's Most Divisive Movie
Defense of "Compliance," Sundance's Most Divisive Movie

I can’t get Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” out of my head. Like a migraine that won’t go away, this nasty enervating movie is really sticking. It’s the only movie I saw at Sundance that has compelled me to write about it. I don’t have an assignment to review it; I just need to exorcise it from my mind. And while it might be an unpleasant experience, it’s a testament to the power of this little, low-budget claustrophobic nightmare of a movie. After it ended, I actually let out an audible “oomph” noise as if someone had just hit me in the gut.

Now first, there’s some borderline unethical issues that need to be addressed: Yes, this is a film that places the audience in a superior position to its characters, observing these poor Chickwich workers like rats in a particularly menacing maze as a crank caller pretends to be a policeman and unceasingly manipulates them. And yes, this is a film that rides on the suspense of the sexual humiliation and domination of an attractive blonde teenage girl. And for these reasons alone you could throw “Compliance” on the misanthropic trash heap that so many critics and viewers will inevitably do.

But a few caveats to these criticisms: Does the film implicate the viewer — a la the work of Michael Haneke, an obvious reference point for this cinema of cruelty — or does the audience get a free pass, somehow getting some kind of sick vicarious pleasure in the proceedings. I’m not sure, but the sheer discomfort in watching the film might suggest the former.

In the film’s favor, I also can’t think of a recent American narrative film that is so profoundly political as “Compliance” — a post 9/11, post-Abu Ghraib, post-OWS account of power and class and subjugation in the heart of America. (Not only did I think of Haneke, but I also thought of Chris Smith’s work, and Errol Morris’ “Standard Operation Procedure”).

While “Compliance” strains credibility at times–it’s like the kids in the haunted house who should just get the fuck out, but don’t–and the movie may lose viewers during its horrible set-up, the film builds to a brilliant pair of totally unexpected scenes that cement the story’s themes of control and unaccountability that we’ve seen again and again in our society, from the torture chambers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo to the evisceration of our economy and our natural resources by Corporate America.

“Compliance” would not be as memorable if it weren’t for the dead-on performance by Ann Dowd. The revelation of Sundance, this middle-aged actress–a veteran of Chicago theater and “Law and Order”–is wholely credible, projecting the perfect mix of caring and callousness, and the seemingly innocuous urge to satisfy authority. Dowd’s smiling fast food manager, trying to keep her workplace in perfect order, reminds me of Sabrina Harman, the young female soldier in the Abu Ghraib photos who was smiling and giving a thumbs up, totally oblivious to the torture that was inflicted around her.

That analogy particularly hits home when reflecting on the film’s masterful coda: Dowd deflects, demures, denies, smiles. I’ve never cringed so much at the platitude, ‘It’s lovely down there.”

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