Friday, March 22, 2019

Compliance (2012)

USA, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Craig Zobel
Photography: Adam Stone
Music: Heather McIntosh
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Cast: Ann Dowd, Pat Healy, Dreama Walker, Bill Camp, Ashlie Atkinson, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey

If there's such a thing as a genre of movies based on social psychology experiments (which this IMDb list would suggest is so), then I guess I am a fan. Or let's say the ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to its newsletter. Certainly Compliance fits the bill, along with 2015's Experimenter and a German picture from 2001, Das Experiment. To be sure, Compliance gets carried away with itself and drifts toward pornography before finally finishing on a ridiculously self-righteous note of true-crime documentary. I have to wonder if the movie isn't intended to be a comedy after all. And why not? The human comedy! The picture is "inspired by true events," which only may or may not have gone to the excesses shown here. As if justifying or apologizing for its extremities, the last image of Compliance before the closing credits is a title card, black letters on lighthouse-blinding white: "Over 70 similar incidents were reported in 30 U.S. states."

Director and writer Craig Zobel owns up in the DVD extras to a fascination with social psychologist Stanley Milgram—Milgram and, of course, his obedience experiment. Obedience to authority is obviously what was at work in the true events behind Compliance, a case Wikipedia calls the "strip search  phone call scam." In these strange and amazing incidents, which took place from 1992 until 2004, a prank caller phoned into fast food restaurants or grocery stores, usually at their busiest times of day, claimed to be a police officer, said one of the employees had robbed someone, and recruited managers into conducting strip searches of employees. In some cases the caller would claim to have a corporate executive standing by. As with phishing types of fraud, just a few nuggets of factual information, such as the name of an executive, can open the door to complete cooperation. It's textbook Milgram, with the caller (Pat Healy, in Compliance) repeatedly asserting his authority and saying all responsibility rests with him.

Zobel's script for Compliance is clever at letting us see how the scam unfolds, erring on the side of being obvious, with enough loose threads and open seams showing to let us get the idea of how the con works. The caller is self-important and brusque, aggressively demanding information and feeling around for personal details he can use to manipulate his victims. He says he's investigating a crime and time is short. He's in a hurry. He never acts as if his outrageous demands are unusual, though he soothes his victims with understanding for how they might think so. As restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) says later, "He had an answer for every question." And he never stops making demands. It becomes apparent that the only way his victims can get free of him is to hang up the phone, and yet that is what they never do, absolved of responsibility and intimidated by authority.

Ann Dowd as Sandra, the manager of the fictitious fast food franchise ChickWich, is perfect for the part, with a convincing hangdog air of middle-aged chronic fatigue. The caller quickly zeroes in on her hopes for marriage in the near future. Places like ChickWich, as anyone might have noticed who has been in a fast food place at a busy time, are often living through constant small-scale crisis. In this case, someone at the restaurant left the freezer door open the night before, hundreds of dollars' worth of food spoiled, and for the dinner rush this evening the restaurant is out of pickles and low on bacon. With 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker) accused of robbery and taken off the ordering line and Sandra dealing with the police, the restaurant is down by two people and descends into further barely controlled chaos. Sandra is exhausted and in the middle of everything.

Becky is obviously the primary victim in this fiasco, accused of robbery, strip-searched, and worse. But one of the most interesting parts of Compliance is the methodical way it stack-ranks its victims, reaching through Milgram for explanations of the phenomena of victims who appear to willingly victimize others. The famous example is Jews given minor positions of authority in concentration camps, wielding that authority ferociously. Well, no one is exactly ferocious here, other than the caller, but both Sandra and, most horrifyingly, her middle-aged boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) are enlisted in atrocious behavior. There's Van on the phone to a friend, later, after escaping the scene, with the despair in his voice telling the story, "Hey, man, can I come over? I did a bad thing."

A lot of people hate this movie. Walkouts and catcalling were reported from the Sundance screening many years ago. The point where it goes over the line for me, flirting too lasciviously with BDSM pornography—the caller makes both Van and Becky address him as "sir," for example, and has explicit instructions for spanking—is also the point where I sensed the movie attempting to seduce us into a similar depraved state, sitting there passively watching. That felt offensive. The fact is you can blame a guy for trying. But in a way the movie redeems itself by turning so comically to the TV true-crime documentary style. It could well be evidence of its confusion but I think there's a case for comedy here. The sudden dogged forensic investigation and high moral dudgeon after the explicit sexxxee scenes are such an obvious case of wanting to both eat and have cake. Yet almost irresistibly it satisfies our sense of outrage which it just inflamed. It even gets a little high and mighty about excesses of gotcha journalism. Are they kidding with that? Yes, it's possible they are. I can't blame anyone for feeling a bit cheated by Compliance. But I think it works, certainly as a demonstration of Milgram's ideas on obedience and authority. With caution, I might even want to look a little further into that IMDb list.

No comments:

Post a Comment