Compliance (2012)

I’ve tagged this as a psychological thriller, but maybe psychological horror would be more apt. It’s certainly a fascinating, if horrifying, story, and from all accounts (as the film is inordinately keen to stress, right up front) it’s based almost entirely on a real case that took place in a McDonald’s restaurant (here rebranded as a chain called ChickWich) in 2004. The story, in short, is that a hoax caller masquerading as a police officer is able to convince the manager of the restaurant to believe that an employee has been caught thieving and then keep her held in the back office until the police arrive on the scene. The detail is in what he asks her captors to subject her to by way of investigating the ‘crime’, which is where things get really nasty.

The nastiness is of course the point of the film, and the unpleasantness induced in the viewer is, one imagines, the point too. It’s the kind of nastiness (of people acting beyond their volition, or in this case, believing that they are) that Michael Haneke was going for in his film Funny Games (1997). That film was particularly concerned with violence, whereas this trades more on sexual exploitation and humiliation and in some ways is even more difficult viewing, though I feel as if a key difference is the way the filmmakers treat the audience. Haneke’s film emphasises audience complicity in acts of on-screen exploitation (in his case, violence); Zobel is not interested in implicating the audience for their voyeurism, but perhaps more in pointing the finger at a culture that allows such compliance, a service culture that discourages questioning of authority, and entrenches class and wealth divisions. I say “perhaps”, for it’s very subtly done, perhaps too much so.

The camerawork constantly shies away from what is happening with discreet pans away behind the shelves, racking of focus, and the intercutting of what for lack of a better term I will call ‘pillow shots’ (those cuts away to still life images of inanimate objects: the paint marking out a car parking space, the food waste encrusting a deep fat frier, that kind of thing). It’s all very artfully done, scored by music that recalls Philip Glass’s work with Errol Morris, effectively creating a mood within which the drama unfolds. I should also single out the acting, especially that of the restaurant manager played by Ann Dowd, which is perfectly fitted to the film’s tone.

As much as I am left wanting to like this film and appreciate its methods, it leaves me feeling somewhat on the side of the exploited. Sure, it does good work in leaving to the viewer big questions about the motivations of its protagonists, and about the power dynamics at work in the society it depicts. But however true the case it depicts may be, such themes can be raised without those particular events. My favourite bits of the film were the opening minutes, setting up the relationships and tensions within the restaurant, between boss and employees, boss and suppliers, employees and customers, front of house and kitchen staff. It was all very deftly done, so my squeamishness comes from the way the ensuing humiliation acts as a rather unpleasant way to force the points already being made. Having said Zobel is not mimicking Haneke’s trick of implicating the audience, yet I am left feeling, having sat through the film, that like the protagonists I have been put in the position of believing I had no other choice than to stay the course. And having done so, I can hardly take the position that the protagonists were foolish to have gone through with their own humiliation, however easy it may in retrospect be to make that judgement. This seems like a morally dubious equivalency to be making, given the evident horrors of the events depicted, but that’s the uneasiness I am left feeling at the end, so perhaps this is the filmmakers’ masterstroke? It is in any case all very complicated: I either despise this film or I love it. For what it’s worth, I didn’t like Haneke’s film either, for exactly the reasons that Haneke had no doubt intended. So maybe in the end, all I’m saying is that I didn’t like myself at the end of this film, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for a film to have achieved, I simply don’t know.

Director/Writer Craig Zobel; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 27 March 2013.


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