Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Movie Review: Compliance

Written & Directed by Craig Zobel
Running Time: 90 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2012 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

In the early 1960s, researcher Stanley Milgram conducted a now infamous psychology experiment in which he tested the willingness of subjects to submit to authority. Milgram asked his test subjects to act as “teachers” who would administer electric shocks to individual “learners” each time those learners failed to answer a question correctly. Each learner was kept out of view of the teacher, but the teacher was able to communicate verbally with the learner. Consequently, the teacher could hear the learner’s reaction to the electric shocks. What the teachers didn’t know is that the learners were actually in on the experiment and only feigned receiving an electric shock. The unsettling outcome of the experiment is that most teachers continued to administer what they presumed to be an increasingly strong electric shock to learners, even when those learners began to protest quite adamantly and indicated that they were experiencing severe pain. Eventually, the learner would cease even to respond, suggesting that the increased voltage had knocked the learner unconscious (or worse). And why would the teachers continue to do something they believed was inflicting great harm to another person? Because the overseeing experimenter continually told subjects that they had to.

Purportedly based on actual events (to what extent I cannot say), Compliance plays on the same dynamic as that explored in the Milgram experiment described above. Becky (Dreama Walker) is a 19-year-old cashier at the local Chickwich fast-food restaurant. During a typically busy Friday night shift, Becky is suddenly pulled aside by her manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), who tells the young cashier that a policeman, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), is on the phone and accusing Becky of snatching money from a customer’s purse. After a brief phone interview with Becky fails to establish her innocence, Officer Daniels asks Sandra to assist in the investigation. Initially, he requires only that Sandra keep Becky in a back room, without access to her belongings, until the police can arrive and properly search the place. As time drags on, however, Officer Daniels asks more and more of Sandra, and ultimately of Becky. Eager to help out, Sandra goes along with the officer’s demands. Ever maintaining her innocence, Becky also obeys, hoping her cooperation will bring the situation to a speedy end. As the officer’s requests becoming increasingly outlandish, and even morally suspect, Becky’s obedience is further tested.

Compliance is an unsettling and uncomfortable film to watch, which is exactly as it should be. It is tense and harrowing, pushing its characters to their psychological limits without seeming indulgent or exploitative. In the hands of a less patient filmmaker, Compliance would have felt sensationalistic or perversely titillating. Writer and director Craig Zobel avoids these pitfalls by letting the storyline simmer and come to a boil only gradually, preserving a tight ratio between the viewer’s mounting sense of disbelief and Becky’s increasing self-debasement. Indeed, Compliance succeeds as a piece of psychological noir by ambling toward the extreme with a casual and measured gait. On the few occasions when it stumbles, it is precisely because Becky’s submission comes too quickly. This is an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s terse 90-minute running time, which by necessity condenses Becky’s several-hours-long ordeal. When the film throws in the occasional cinematic ellipses, it requires some readjustment on the part of the viewer, who may struggle to muster the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Becky’s subservience. Thankfully, these bumps occur maybe two or three times and are not detrimental to the overall tone of the film.

I must say something here about Ann Dowd’s performance as Chickwich manager Sandra. Compliance is very much an independent film, smaller than most independent films that garner Oscar attention. While Compliance was entirely overlooked by the Academy, Dowd is responsible for seven of the twelve award nominations that the film did receive from various film associations, etc. This attention is deserved, as Dowd’s performance is easily among the most overlooked of 2012. Walker and Healy, as Becky and Officer Daniels, respectively, are both quite good in their own rights, and the film would have suffered had they not brought a natural believability to their roles. But Dowd is the standout and is herself a reason to see the movie.

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