In his book In the Blink of an Eye, renowned American film editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) presented the idea that, since humans blink in time with thought, “if an audience is really in the grip of a film, they are going to be thinking (and therefore blinking) with the rhythm of the film.” Murch imagined a rapt cinema audience, viewed in high-contrast infrared, their eyes illuminated as a galaxy of dots against a black field, mapping the pace of the film. In a successfully compelling film, those dots would appear and disappear together. If there was such footage of an audience watching Craig Zobel’s latest film Compliance, I guarantee those glowing orbs would not blink in tandem.
Craig Zobel has created the kind of film that you cannot watch without thinking about what you are watching, and why, and how. Compliance is an “inspired by true events” horror story about one unbelievable shift at a fast food establishment in exurbs America where a prank caller manages to exploit the power dynamics-that-be to a devastating end. A bored domestic dude (a dad, no less) rings up a fast fried chicken joint (think Chick-Fil-A) posing as a cop. He speaks with manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), who is already off to a humiliating, stressful shift. “Is there a pretty young thing working at counter? Maybe nineteen years old, blonde, cock sucking mouth?” he asks. (Okay, not in so many words, but the implication—as the camera cuts to Becky’s wide mouth taking food orders—is there.) “Becky?” replies Sandra. “Becky, yes, Rebecca.” The authoritative male voice on the line proceeds to tell Sandra that Rebecca (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer and needs to be interrogated. The exploitation—of Sandra’s gullibility and dutifulness and of Becky’s body—escalates, as everyone keeps complying with the supposed officer’s commands. In the end, Becky is forced naked and sexually assaulted in the restaurant’s back room, while customers continue to consume hydrogenated oils up front.
That wasn’t a spoiler, not really. From the beginning, the audience knows, more or less, what is going to happen to Becky: that she is going to get naked and be humiliated sexually by her co-workers and that we are going to get to watch. That is what makes Compliance such an uncomfortable film. As passive viewers, are we complicit in this young lady’s exploitation? I certainly felt so. The whole situation was totally male gaze and I found myself rooting for Becky to take it off and get down on her knees. Maybe I read too much erotica, maybe I’m just a pervert. But it’s not just that—this story is like every episode of “CSI” or “Law & Order” mixed with Fifty Shades of Grey and “like, a ton of horror movies,” writer/director Craig Zobel offered. Our culture loves to watch beautiful, young women (blond and white, natch) subjugated sexually and objectified. We are used to watching this stuff and it having at least an underlying current of titillation. And, yet, in the case of Compliance, we also know that this is based on RL events, that people actually got hurt. The result is glorious audience self-reflexivity, no tandem blinking. There were scenes in the film so quiet and confusing that I found myself looking around at my fellow viewers. Did they feel as I felt? Simultaneously turned on and sad for this person and complicit in her harm and angry for patriarchy and guilty and shameful and so not unlike a victim of sexual assault myself?
When I voiced this tension to Craig Zobel and Ann Dowd, they were surprised, and my shame only increased. Ann Dowd seemed especially perturbed. She, as a mother of three, and of daughters not far from Becky’s age, did not sense any titillation. She felt the story had more to do with atrocities like Nazi Germany. Zobel was a little more generous to my perversion: “My initial interest in the story stemmed from this relationship with authority,” he explained, “but when you do look at the real incidents which this is based on, they all do go into gender and sexual power dynamics situations, right? And I do think it’s important to look at that.” Okay. And did you think about how you were going to frame Dreama Walker (who plays Becky) and was there any question about showing her naked, considering the reactions you might get? Zobel felt it was important to have nudity for the “gravity” of the situation. “I mean, she got—this person got naked in the back room! And that should really land. And I felt like we tried to shoot it in a way… It wasn’t necessarily aimed at titillation. I certainly don’t think—I think that’s a fascinating reaction.”
Reactions to Compliance have been varied, from hails of brilliance to theatre walk-outs and heckles of exploitation. Straight out of the theatre, I mostly felt angry, righteous with feminist indignation. But, after days of mulling it over, and after talking to Zobel and Dowd, I started to really like this little movie. Here I was thinking about it, a lot. “We don’t talk about stuff like this very much,” Zobel said to me earnestly. We should. Zobel has crafted a tight, if flawed, film. But its flaws—maybe problematics is a better, if more obnoxious, term—its problematics make for arresting conversation and that is absolutely brilliant. Psychology and cultural significance aside, Compliance is beautifully shot, well scored, and brilliantly casted. Ann Dowd is remarkable. She takes a role that could have easily descended into an evil stepmother wench revenge fantasy and fills it with empathy and chill. Her last lines alone, delivered in the terrifying tone of American pleasantry, are worth the ticket entry. Go see this movie. I need more people to talk about it with.