Sunday, February 17, 2013
I can pinpoint the exact moment at which I stopped believing the story being told in Compliance. Fast food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has been on the phone with a man purporting to be a police officer named Daniels (Pat Healy), told that her employee Becky (Dreama Walker) had stolen something from a customer earlier in the day, and essentially deputized over the phone and ordered to conduct an interrogation and strip search in order to get at the truth. Naturally, "Officer" Daniels is no such thing, and is conducting an unspeakably cruel prank for reasons which remain mysterious. Sandra is told that she needs to bring a man into the room where she's holding Becky to watch after her and after another employee, Kevin (Phillip Ettinger) balks at the assignment of keeping tabs on a half-naked Becky, Sandra calls her fiance, Van (Bill Camp), who leaves his construction worker friends to come to the restaurant. Once Van is in the room alone with Becky, the caller orders him to take an escalating series of liberties with the cowed Becky, and Van complies. How could he believe that this was a police officer who was telling him to do such unspeakable things? No one could be that naive, or that cruel.
The twist here, if you'll indulge me in calling it that, is that Compliance isn't simply "based on a true story" as it purports (I mean, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre claimed to be based on a true story, and that's only true in the absolute loosest sense of the phrase) but takes something pretty close to a documentary level of realism with the facts of the case (this case, and reading the details will both horrify you to the soul, and spoil you on the film, so be warned on both accounts.) All of the real people involved did act in the exact ways that the film suggests they did, and this isn't some threadbare urban legend, this is a criminal case with filmed corroboration that happened in a real place to real people. The young woman who was victimized, Louise Ogborn, has been remarkably forthcoming about the case, and all parties involved have been filtered through the justice system in one way or another. It turns out that people aren't simply capable of acting in the bafflingly cruel ways that they act in this film, but they did, in fact, act in those ways.
The film is mostly successful in its storytelling - the story is harrowing and deeply, deeply uncomfortable, and director Craig Zobel tells it with a straightforward efficiency. Dowd's performance holds the film together, her reticence about the tasks she's asked to do but extreme deference to authority giving the outlandish nature of what's happening somewhere to rest in real space. Walker has to be alternately defiant, cowed and broken, and she acquits herself well. Zobel's insistence on the procedural details of getting us from point A to B (a strange man calls a restaurant out of the blue, and the people involved wind up committing sexual assault because of his suggestions) means that we get somewhat short-shrift with the characters - it would have been nice to have known a little bit more about Becky, and about Van and Sandra's relationship prior to this, although I will say that I appreciate that he did not attempt to psychoanalyze "Officer Daniels", a character (and real person, who is named David R. Stewart and who managed to wrangle an acquittal from the justice system) who doesn't deserve anything more than a cursory analysis.
People have commented on the meta-analysis of the film - in a story that strips away the humanity of its main victim by forcing her to strip for strangers, there is a level of audience compliance in the story, in that we are voyeurs watching Walker strip down. I think Zobel does a pretty good job of walking the line between uncomfortable nudity and titillating nudity, and the film never feels exploitative of Walker the way it very easily could. But the very nature of how film works means that we are, at least in part, enacting the same drama, in a small way, that the people who went along with stripping Ogborn of her clothes and her humanity enacted, and that is an uncomfortable proposition that has to be wrestled with. The second meta-layer is that everyone in this film has a real-life counterpart, and especially for the victim (who was not consulted on the film, and that is an issue that I don't feel confident opining about), the entire world now has the option of re-enacting the most traumatic night of her life in real time for entertainment purposes. I'm not really sure what to make of that - it is a troubling story that can and should be told, and it has some obvious (and some less obvious) lessons for all of us in its dissemination. But boy, the troubling nature of this film only barely touches the surface, and there are layers upon layers if you keep digging. B