Why I Abandoned Compliance

Why I Abandoned Compliance September 7, 2012

Between 1994 and 2004, strip search prank call scams happened several times.

In each scenario, a perverse prank caller phoned a small business—usually a fast food joint—and persuaded employees to perform acts of sexual abuse. His targets cooperated, convinced they were assisting law enforcement.

I remember the news reports. I remember feeling disbelief, then disgust. How could people be so spectacularly gullible, so hard-hearted? When they put security camera footage of the crimes on television, I flinched. What could be gained from witnessing such behavior?

Now you can see this scenario reenacted on the big screen.

Compliance, a celebrated new film by Craig Zobel, brings us into a fast food joint, acquaints us with the team on duty, and exposes the pressures, biases, and distrust in their ranks.

As we listen to the prank caller work his magic, we watch the listeners’ bewilderment, hesitation, and eventual surrender to manipulation. And we see a young woman humiliated, stripped, and molested.

Confession time: I’m writing about a movie that I abandoned.

Some will say that I’m violating a rule of film criticism: Reviewers have a responsibility to give a fair and full assessment of what they see. If they walk out, they have no business reviewing what they didn’t finish.

It makes some sense to me. It would be rather presumptuous of me to cast judgment on a story I haven’t finished.

So let’s not call this a review. Call it a caution.

I’ve only walked out of five or six movies in the last twenty years. I count several horror movies among my all-time favorites, and I’ve endured films about evil beyond comprehension. Why did I flee sixty minutes into a skillfully crafted film about fast food employees?

Compliance is not your typical horror movie. It avoids typical horror movie conventions like scary music and visual jolts. It’s almost clinical in its documentation of ordinary fast food rituals and environments. The cast looks like, well, folks you’d find in a greasy burger joint. It’s unnervingly realistic, until people start behaving badly.

That’s the real horror—the mind-boggling naïveté and cruelty. But this stuff really happened. As the film begins, gigantic capital letters tell us so.

Truth, then. Who could object to that? Why complain if this represents what actually happened?

While I cannot deny that the filmmakers show tremendous skill in representing “true events,” I must object to how they represent it.

In my college years, I worked at a video rental store. Students I recognized sometimes rented pornography, to watch acts that “really happened.” Others rented Faces of Death documentaries for the adrenalin-rush that comes from watching deaths caught on-camera.

It was clear that these customers felt some measure of shame. They wouldn’t talk to me or make eye contact. (One exception—a man in a military uniform once returned alone after his family had shopped there. Renting porn, he glared at me in a silent threat. I would keep his secret, or else.)

Such entertainments exploit the bare facts in ways that narrow our vision, conceal essential information, and distance us from understanding. They separate physical sensation from conscience, body from spirit.

Facts, by themselves, are not truth. Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “Nothing is less real than realism….It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.” Details are not necessarily enough to deliver a rewarding experience.

Art inclines us to open details up and consider their relationships to things beyond themselves. In that way, we’re can find understanding in a fuller perspective.

The filmmakers could have told this story in a way that demonstrated curiosity or showed they cared about these characters. They might have shown interest in how these events reflect larger trends of cultural manipulation. (What voices persuade us to eat fast food garbage in the first place?)

And they might have shown a little bit of interest in these characters’ strengths, in any flicker of conscience.

But they seemed primarily interested in capturing every maneuver made by the caller, who sneers and twitches like a psycho in a prime-time police procedural.

Above all, Zobel betrayed my trust by inviting us to watch a young woman’s humiliation. I left because I could not bear to see her torments intensify.

Zobel claims he was investigating human nature, trying to understand how this could have happened. Perhaps so, but his movie felt like little more than a sustained experience of disgust.

I was reminded of The Jerry Springer Show and other daytime television spectacles that reduce people to beastly behavior and exploit them in moments of weakness for our entertainment.

I’ve defended Natural Born Killers against those who condemned it as lurid, or who blamed Oliver Stone for the copycat killings that followed. Harsh as it was, I found the movie to be a thoughtful, inventive examination of the cultural forces that created those killers.

Compliance seems designed to exalt the criminal, and to participate in his contempt for his victims. I suspect that the real-world villain would be delighted to find moviegoers enthralled by his achievement.

But no, I did not see the whole film. I might be wrong. Perhaps there are redemptive aspects that I overlooked.

I did wait a while before writing this down. I wanted to hear from other reviewers whose discernment I admire.

Michael Sicinski writes that Compliance is “as lurid as its true-life source material.” And Joe Morgenstern calls it a “nasty little bottom-feeder of a film…too condescending to be trusted, too manipulative to be believed, too turgid to be enjoyed, too shameless to be endured.”

I’m inclined to believe that I made the right decision. After all, if I allow voices to persuade me to resist my conscience, and if I make myself an audience to spectacles designed to dazzle me with devilry… how am I any different from those compliant pawns who allowed these horrors to unfold?

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  • Great post…I am reminded of Ephesians 5:11-12.

    • Jeff H

      I could not agree with you on this more. Excellent review. I too love horror films. I’ve seen some really horrific ones too, but this film, because of its utter lack of character development and lack of understanding by the director of totality of his subject matter, is nothing more than an exploitation film in the model of “I Spit On Your Grave”. If the true nature of the subject matter in “Compliance” were about our basic need to follow any authority figure, even anonymous ones, then why not alter the “true” story just a bit by having the store clerk be an overweight 49 year old male who is not at all attractive to look at naked? Because it mattes who the victim is. The real life perpetrator of this crime targeted very specific places to call and he targeted young girls in particular. Tell me the store manager would have so readily done as instructed to a large man employee. Of course not. She’s be more afraid of his reaction to her requests than she is of the anonymous cop caller. The issue here is power and how the power we can have over others can lead us to do horrible things to them under the right set of circumstances. It was not at all necessary for Zobel to reenact the crime on film for us to watch or for the actress to endure. This is childish, boyish film making by a director who needs to grow up before he’s allowed to make another film like this again. Or barring that, he at least needs to be as honest as the makers of “I Spit On Your Grave” and admit he’s making an exploitation of women film. Inexcusable film making.

  • Well spoken!

  • Jacob

    Thanks for this review. It’s easy to want to be the “stronger brother” who has a more “mature” conscience and then force yourself to partake of things that really are harmful. I’m thankful that you cared enough about your own conscience and that of your readers to walk out of the film and then write about it.

  • Thought-provoking post. The last paragraph really stuck out at me, and prompted me to wonder how many times I have read/watched things that are designed to “dazzle me with devilry”, even when my conscience tells me not to. I’ve learned that when I start reading (I rarely do movies/TV) and feel that tug of conscience inside, it’s time to put the book down, no matter how well-written it is.

  • Don

    Great article, and I’m sympathetic to your argument. My only question: isn’t it clear from the setup and the promotional materials (not to mention the real life news articles) what was going to happen in this film? If so, why go at all? I’m guessing this was for a professional assignment. But were you actually surprised by the direction the movie was taking when you walked out? It seems like a foregone conclusion, before you even step foot in the theater, that you’re going to see someone sexually abused and humiliated.

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      First, I didn’t know, going in, what it was about. I just knew it had highly praised by some of my go-to critics. When the movie started, I quickly recognized the scenario and remembered the news stories.

      But even so, I stayed because, as I said in the review, someone could make a very good film about this. As Roger Ebert famously said, “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” I’ve seen all kinds of movies about atrocities and shameful acts, but the “how” of the movie made for some enlightening, I might even say “redemptive” (although that word is so grossly over-used), experiences.

      And for what it’s worth, most of my moviegoing is for “professional assignments,” as I go to the movies with the intention of writing about them for one of my various platforms (this blog, Seattle Pacific’s Response magazine, IMAGE, Filmwell).

      Come to think of it, Dogville, which I mention in this companion piece about movie-walkout experiences, does include scenes of sexual abuse and humiliation. But the camera frames these scenes so that we a larger scenario. The composition of those scenes encouraged me to think about the situation rather than merely feel sick and helpless and angry.

      • Don

        Aha. Your account makes much more sense to me now knowing that you didn’t know what you were getting into. And I agree that this type of subject matter can be handled in a more responsible, less exploitive way. In fact, when I wrote my original comment I thought, “I bet he’s going to bring up the Roger Ebert quote about “A movie is not about what it is about…” 🙂

  • Nate

    You are never “wrong” when you walk out on a movie. Turning away from something you feel is injurious is an act of self defense. I wish more people would do it.

  • Jim Hale

    I could not support your sensibilities more. But I think you’re right. You have no business reviewing the film if you haven’t seen the whole thing.

  • Sol

    i am totally agree with you. i’m from buenos aires and, as a young woman, it was really hard for me to watch this film. It was getting more and more violent minute by minute. i could make it til the end, i really wanted to know what happened to this people and this poor girl (i haven’t found much on the internet, though). so, yes. i didn’t enjoy it. it didn’t make me feel anything but horror and anger. i can’t believe this happened for real…

  • Shatika

    I couldn’t finish it either. I was so angry! I stopped before I knew who was guilty of assaulting her. I watched the last 10 minutes. It was just too much. Too real. Then consider how many people he did this to and all the women that are assaulted every hour in the world. It was just too much.

  • KK

    I’ve worked in fast food and remember looking around in wonder at my fellow coworkers, thinking how could anyone be this ignorant. I’ve also worked in technical support roles where customers would call in and i would have to assist them over the phone, sometimes asking them to perform tasks and be amazed that they complied without question and then be grateful for my assistance. That being said I found this film to be spot on. This film is as real as any depiction I’ve ever seen….and that’s what really bothers you guys. You WANT to be dazzled with devilry. What you can’t handle is the truth…

  • B

    I think the issue here is that, as you sort of articulate- this film really isn’t a film. its a recreation. there is no character development here for anyone to observe or understand. you talk about not enjoying it and feeling disgusted and walking out and I completely agree, although I don’t think the idea is to “enjoy” observing this experience. I think that what they have done by making this movie is to make a lot of people uncomfortable (which may of course have been the idea) when they could have really made people question their own morals and ethics in a far more intriguing way. Akin to movies such as the Experiment and even to a lesser extent the Saw franchise. I, like you found the film difficult to watch and I did not enjoy it. There was no characterisation, no background, no real plot evolution – there really was nothing “filmy” about this film. It hits too close to the bone and with all the information and videos of this event already available on the internet, it really begs the question – why was this reproduction even made?

  • Intrigued

    I feel like the movie achiveved all of its goals. It wasn’t entertaining, it wasn’t enjoyable, it was informative. The film makes you think about human behavior. The director took real life events & made them into into a lesson. This movie made me extremely uncomfortable, especially considering I was a victim of sexual abuse, but I’m glad somebody took the chance to make people think about their actions.