By Janine Gericke.
There are some movies that I refuse to watch. There are some things that I don’t need burned into my brain. Usually, that Black List consists of painful and uncomfortable things like Eli Roth’s torture porn oeuvre. Surprisingly, Compliance is far from torture porn. It doesn’t have gore. But it is one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. Unlike torture porn—whose sole purpose is to get a reaction—Compliance makes a statement. Or it will make a statement, if you can sit through to the end. It is the type of film that not only makes you ask, “What would I do?” but also makes you wonder why any of us make the decisions that we do. How do we decide if we are making the right choices? This film is all the more horrifying because it is inspired by actual events. The audience can become angry—not at the film—but at the fact that the events depicted can and have actually happened.
I attended a screening of Compliance at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, and before the screening, had heard rumblings about people walking out of an earlier screening. This only confirmed what I’d heard about the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival, and had me a little worried. Before the film began, we were warned that we would be divided as an audience, half of us would absolutely hate it and half of us would be happy that we stuck it out. Luckily, I was one of the many who stuck it out.
Without giving too much away, the film takes place at a ChickWich fast-food restaurant, in a small town in Ohio. Becky (Dreama Walker), a happy-go-lucky teen, seems to like her job and spends her shift talking with her co-workers. One day, a man calling himself Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), calls the ChickWich requesting to speak with the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd). He asks about Becky by name, giving a very accurate description. He claims that, during today’s shift, Becky stole some money from a customer’s pocketbook and the customer wants to press charges. He ends up walking the manager through a very uncomfortable interrogation of the young woman. He gives Becky a choice–go to jail, or have Sandra perform a strip search.
From this point on, the story begins to unfold in the most disturbing way. As their conversation continues, the audience feels more and more nervous. Why would she just believe that this man is who he says he is? Why not ask for credentials? Why would anyone not ask questions? The audience is completely in the know. We see the man who is calling the ChickWich; we hear his chuckles, as even he can’t believe that they are falling for this. This is his idea of fun, a sick joke, and it is maddening.
Filmmaker Craig Zobel and cinematographer Adam Stone do an excellent job of making their audience feel both incredibly uncomfortable and extremely pissed off. Compliance is definitely atmospheric. Zobel keeps the camera tight and close to his characters, elevating our feelings of unease. Many shots are slightly out of focus, creating a soft image, as if we are looking in on these characters through smudged glass. Many times we only see someone’s cheek in the corner of the frame, or someone’s hand, giving the viewer a disorienting look at what is happening. As I watched Compliance, I couldn’t help but think about how I used to watch scary movies as a child. I was so scared that I would cover my face with my hands, but so curious that I would peek through my fingers. Zobel and Stone’s camerawork creates that same peeking-through-fingers feeling. He only gives us a glimpse, or an idea, of what is happening. What we can’t see for sure, but we know what is going on. This effect makes the story that much more difficult to watch.
Heather McIntosh’s score for Compliance is another perfect fit for this film. Her music is eerie, and haunting and more than adds to the film’s quick cuts and hazy images. McIntosh uses a mixture of cello, electric bass, electric guitar, percussion, and piano for her evocative score.
If you think that you can take it, I highly recommend seeing this film. It’s infuriating, it’s painful, but it’s also some of the most stunning camerawork that I’ve seen in a long time. The story grabs you and ferociously pulls you in. I don’t know if I could make it through multiple viewings, but this is a film that I’ll continue to think and talk about for years.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.