Friday, 29 March 2013


Compliance, which has just opened this week, was one of the best films in the 2012 London Film Festival. The strange thing about it is that, even among an audience less film literate, less armed with press kits, and less dedicated than the one I saw it with at the LFF preview, everyone seems to know the premise going in (and if you don't know it, stop reading right now, and come back after you've seen the movie!).

The premise is that the manager of a fast-food branch gets a call from the police telling her that they've had a complaint from someone who's had money stolen from their purse by one of the Chick-Wich counter staff. The manager, Sandra, is told to in effect take the girl, Becky, into custody, and from that point the voice on the telephone manipulates a series of more and more serious humiliations for Becky, involving other staff members and even Sandra's boyfriend.

Now we all know what's going on; we've heard about the film and/or about the real events that inspired it. Some of us knew about the Stanley Milgram experiments, conducted at Yale in 1961, which involved testing people's obedience to authority by requiring them to administer electrical shocks to subjects in an experiment. If you knew the procedure of that, you would recognise the gradually increasing resistance being overcome by an equally increasing assertion of authority, playing on submissive doubt.

Compliance accepts all that, and copes with it very well. It adopts a sort of thriller format—yet the reveal is relatively early in the film, making the thriller aspect the question of just how far the staff will go, and how far the perpetrator will push, and indeed, whether he will get away with it, even to the point where Becky gets spanked—a sort of literal Milgram shock. The format only works on its own terms but also serves to put the audience into the same frame of mind as the staff: they are constantly checking their own reactions, perhaps, but not necessarily aware, that they are being manipulated in a manner not that far removed from the staff. After all, we surrender to the film-maker's authority and believe their version of reality.

It's also helped by some fine casting, particularly Ann Dowd as Sandra. This is also a movie about work, and the pressures of minimum-wage life in America; fear of losing a job is a great way to create a docile work-force, a reinforcement of obdience to authority in itself. Sandra may be one of life's losers, an adult dressed in a child's outfit, but she is also one of life's believers—a clear contrast to her workforce, who realise they are in a dead-end and are slackers as a result. She's matched perfectly by the hangdog features of Bill Camp as her 'fiance' Van, he conveys a 'not quite there' aspect that makes him perfect, particularly as he uses in all the wrong ways the sudden influence of authority granted him. Dreama Walker as Becky is also very good, conveying the right mix of not-quite beauty and not-quite confidence.

Pat Healy as 'Officer Daniels' is interesting. He's presented carefully as a kind of cliched Nazi, a Dr Mengele by phone, and he smokes, always a sign of extreme detachment from society's mores nowadays. But his voice is very much like the comedian Bob Newhart's, and Newhart's most famous routines involved his doing one side of phone calls between famous people, God and Noah, or Elizabeth I and Walter Raleigh. It's almost like sending the audience (at least that part old or savvy enough to recall Newhart) an additional reminder something else is going on.

Craig Zobel, who both wrote and directed, brings out the flatness, the primary colour drab, of his characters' lives, and cinematographer Adam Stone reinforces that with his use of shadowy spaces which signal an existential dilemma: when Becky is in the office/store room, it's a like a situation from a Sartre play. Their detachment from each other, the gap into which the phone cop intercedes. It takes the outsider to the group, Van, to realise what's going on. And when they do, the real cops seem too close to the pervert for comfort. In the end, we feel, the perversion and the experimentation are themselves too similar, and the movie and the events as well.

A postscript shows us what happens in 'real' life. Sandra lost Van, and her job. The fast-food chain was sued for not 'protecting' and employee, as if there were a training session or seminar that would be relevant to a fast-food manager's career. The suit further drove the staff apart, but it was the experiment that had already done that. And when asked, in the ugfaux-psychology of TV chat shows, whether she was 'brain-washed', Sandra replies, 'I did what I was told to do'.

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