Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

11 January 2013

Punish and Surveille

Feel like watching something that is difficult to sit through in the extreme? Feel like spending your evening watching a bunch of people agree to do things that you know are inappropriate, offensive, totally invasive, and potentially violent way before they ever even agree to do them? Feel like popping in a movie that is excruciating to watch? A film that will have you exerting every fiber of your being in order to will that it be over sooner?

Then might I recommend Compliance! Craig Zobel's movie is about the urban legend you've heard – we are told that it is based on true events – in which a man calls a fast-food restaurant or some other establishment and then requests that a manager strip-search one of the employees. This leads to worse and worse things... although how we get to those things is (I guess?) the "thriller" part of this film.

I should say that the performances in Compliance are excellent across the board, not least of which is a really lovely lead performance by Ann Dowd as the manager. She is truly great in this part.

Compliance is about the banal violences we are willing to enact upon one another and the relative ease with which we can come to see someone else as less than human. It is also a movie about what the filmmakers see as the deeply misplaced sense of power we have given to the authority figures around us. Near the end of the film, a police officer asks the protagonist why she did what she did even though she didn't want to do it. She responds, I just knew it was going to happen. This was, for me, perhaps the most striking moment in Compliance: the moment I expected least and perhaps its only moment of profundity.

I think the trouble I had with this film is exactly what the pleasure of watching is supposed to be. The entire thing struck me as vaguely prurient. Are we expected to enjoy watching these people be tricked and do things they do not want to do but are willing to do if they are told they "must"? Are we expected to enjoy watching this man get away with masterminding such a scheme? Or is it that we enjoy him (later) getting caught by the real police? Do we hope that the crisis will be averted and everyone will come to their senses? Do we hope it continues so that we get to see more? I am not sure about any of this, honestly. I think this is because I can't figure out where the pleasure in this movie is supposed to reside.  

Compliance is, as its poster promises, chilling, unnerving, and terrific. But these were chills I couldn't enjoy, and terror I'd rather not have experienced.