‘Compliance’: First, Do No Harm

Film scholars have commented upon the native power of the documentary medium to convey the impression of unmanipulated reality. The intimation of “truthiness”– Stephen Colbert’s delectable mot– becomes especially pernicious in what I’ll call the “ill-intentioned” documentary. In this thankfully rare subgenre, the maker’s attitude toward some painful psychosocial problem is subverted by the very images that are supposed to promote one’s compassionate understanding.

For example, in a film about Mexican American street youth several decades back, most of the Latinos sported gross acne, scraggly mustaches, gold teeth, and copious off-putting attitude, while their girlfriends were slovenly dressed and spoke like Tijuana trollops. Despite the off-screen narrator’s earnest lament about the subjects’ dismal lives, their appearance projected an aura of disreputable entitlement. For an unwary viewer, it could evoke distaste rather than sympathy. One would like to believe that the maker did not consciously create the prejudicial dissonance between word and image.

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
A photo from “Compliance.”

Compliance,” written and directed by newcomer Craig Zobel, has received rave reviews from knowledgeable critics. The New Yorker’s David Denby and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone have hailed Zobel for baring the dreadful ease with which ordinary people abdicate moral choice in the face of authoritarian pressure. Nevertheless, I rate “Compliance” an ill-intentioned “mockumentary,” in which the audience is the chief victim of the disparity between its noble aims and ignoble ends.

The opening titles state that “Compliance” is based on true events, an assertion one views with misgiving. I don’t doubt that the tragedy upon which the film is based did occur in 2004, at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky. It’s Zobel’s exploitative repackaging of that occasion’s grim realities that spur one’s mistrust and aversion.

Zobel has changed the Kentucky McDonald’s to a “ChickWich” in a small Ohio town. It’s a Friday afternoon. The usual bustling crowd is about to descend, and Sandra, the evening manager, has just arrived. She’s a stocky woman in her late 40s or early 50s, touchy about her attractiveness. You empathize with her defensiveness when she tells a pair of employees gabbing about sex that she, too, enjoys a robust love life with her fiancé.

Sandra is a tough but not unkind boss; totally dedicated to her customers; thoroughly knowledgeable about her operation down to the last French fry. She presides over a staff of several people nearly her age and a gaggle of minimum-wage late teens. The young people have no great affection for the job, yet do it well enough under Sandra’s ever-vigilant eye – except for one slacker who may or may not have left a freezer door seriously ajar. The weekend’s meat supply is threatened; a bacon shortfall is going to be a big problem – no laughing matter.

Sandra wants to be a rising star in ChickWich’s tatty firmament. Her anxiety about blame from above about the costly food spoilage is palpable, escalating her pressure on her crew to stay on top of their game. In this already taut setting, she gets a call from a police officer who says a female customer has just filed a complaint that a waitress, Becky (Dreama Walker), filched money from her purse earlier in the day. He wants to avoid hauling Becky off to the station, and asks Sandra to hold Becky in the back of the restaurant pending his arrival to clear up the problem.

Sandra complies uncomfortably. The cop next conspiratorially intimates that Becky’s detention may be part of a larger investigation into a boyfriend’s sale of illicit drugs. Sandra buys his unlikely tale. Through a subtly orchestrated regime of wheedling, praise, and menace, he chivvies her into interrogating the hapless younger woman, beginning with a mutually humiliating strip search.

Becky’s ensuing Golgatha endures into the small hours of the night. By this time, the “investigation” has turned definitively perverse, and Sandra has swept several employees and her boyfriend into it. Others in the know stand by with varying degrees of discomfort.

I won’t go into the ghastly details. Suffice it to say that rape is in the air when an old male employee flatly refuses to join in Becky’s degradation. Sandra and staff suddenly wake to the horrid realization that they’ve been scammed. (Viewers have known the “cop” is bogus for some time. He’s a disturbingly ordinary family guy, weaving his sicko web from a comfortable home.)

Three months later, a brief sequence shows Sandra in the midst of a TV interview, the program’s nature undisclosed. A subtitle describes her as a fired fast food worker. She chats uneasily about the weather during a break. Scant words are exchanged about the ChickWich debacle, but an 800-pound gorilla is clearly in the room. A laconic sentence states there have been 70 such incidents in America; then the screen goes black.

“Compliance” is competently acted. Ann Dowd, as Sandra, adroitly excites one’s pity and revulsion, as she becomes ever more unglued in her absurdist endeavor to hold the fort while supervising the obscenity unfolding in back. The mise-en-scène artfully captures the sense and sensibility of a dumbed-down hick backwater. Zobel’s direction is credible – too credible.

What does he really want us to make of, or take from this deeply suspect project? Are his objectives honorable – to tutor and warn that anyone, given the right – or vilely wrong – circumstances, can be intimidated by abusive authority? Indeed, that all of us may harbor an innate yen to submit?

In aid of corroborating such propositions, the film’s admirers have alluded to the shameful willingness to surrender the moral responsibility of participants in the notorious Milgram experiment at Yale, or of German citizens during the Nazi era. But the reliability of Milgram’s evidence has been seriously questioned. And the anti-Semitism pervading Nazi Germany rendered much of its population exquisitely susceptible to approving the Jewish persecution if passively – neither wanting nor caring to know about the Holocaust’s brute reality.

I don’t pretend to fathom Zobel’s unconscious motives. But I must wonder if he intuited at whatever conscious level that his aims were questionable, pitched at inflaming the emotions rather than edifying the mind; encouraging contempt for the characters as well as ourselves.

“Compliance’s” protagonists aren’t morally bankrupt, just deeply stupid. You can’t generalize from them about generic humanity. With the exception of the sadistic prankster, the director paints them as well-intentioned but utterly witless good people, charter members of journalist H.L. Mencken’s heartland “boobocracy.” (Sandra’s boyfriend is particularly doltish.)

They fundamentally hate what they are doing or witnessing.

Zobel’s voyeuristic camera takes us into their midst, into the very belly of the beast they’ve collectively created. I feel there’s a subtle implication that some may even have begun enjoying Becky’s debasement, in some corner of the id where the snakes and lizards writhe.

Step by step, Zobel invites us to linger over the transgressive violation of Becky’s body and spirit. One wants to turn away, overcome by shame and loathing. Fans of torture-porn cinema savor the atrocities of the “Saw” and “Hostel” they’ve paid to attend. Zobel’s semitorture porn ambience took me utterly by surprise, even though I knew something about the film in advance.

While estimable critics like Travers and Denby praise “Compliance,” most of the viewers I interviewed felt ill used, as did I. I’ve always maintained that primum non nocere, the physician’s first duty not to harm, should be the credo of the documentarian and now the “mockumentarian.” It should pertain to subject and audience. Deliberately seeking out horror/terror cinema’s scarifying impact raises far more complex issues, which I’ve dealt with elsewhere (“Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch,” New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

Zobel, I fear, hasn’t taken the oath. It came as no surprise when several people walked out of the movie. I would have left, too, but had to stay to review this noxious piece of work – and now urge you not to see it. This is advice I’ve never tendered to readers in decades of reviewing. But I don’t give money to phony charities, either.

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