Compliance

Reality is all the rage in Hollywood.  Whether it’s political Oscar bait, schmaltzy biopics, or those horror films that dubiously claim to be ‘based on real events’, modern audiences apparently crave a bit of authenticity.  Fiction is passé, imagination is out – we want stories about real people doing real things, and we want them here, and we want them now.

But the ‘reality’ of cinema is usually of a specific kind – the kind that takes all the complexity and rawness of a historical event and, for better or worse, moulds it into a two hour jaunt with character arcs and thematic unity.  In short, narrative technique attempts to tame the sprawling chaos of history in the hope that a more distilled truth will emerge.  Sometimes it succeeds (Capote), sometimes is does not (Lincoln).

Proclaiming its factual basis from the outset (the words ‘nothing has been exaggerated’ linger ominously on screen during the introduction), Compliance’s interest lies partly in its twisting of this usual approach.  Whereas most ‘true story’ movies are forced to jazz up and simplify their all-too-real subject matter, Craig Zobel’s film does the opposite – tethering the shocking scenes to banal shots of its everyday fast food setting: Coke spewing into a cardboard cup, fries sizzling in oil, people chewing thoughtlessly on burgers.  Stylistically similar to The Office, this visual emphasis on the mundane is a sensible ploy, because the actual events portrayed become so unbelievable, so mind-bendingly bizarre, that anything other than a controlled directorial style would render the whole thing farcical.

So what of these events?  Well, a hoaxer calls a fast food outlet pretending to be a policeman, and under this guise submits a young employee (Dreama Walker) to a number of increasingly dark degradations.  The hoaxer’s tools of humiliation are the restaurant’s middle-aged manager (Ann Dowd) and, later, her boyfriend (Bill Camp), both of whom willingly obey the outrageous instructions of this supposed figure of authority.  As ‘Officer Daniels’ pushes obedience levels to the max the audience’s credulity levels are equally stretched, and this brings us back to the whole reality thing.

Because a short trip down Wikipedia Lane reveals that the film’s events did indeed all happen at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in 2004.  The film is true to its word – nothing has been exaggerated.  Does this matter when judging a film?  In this case, yes, because Compliance is so utterly dependent on its true story credentials – without them it would be greeted only by incredulous howls and moral indignation.

But while the film’s historical authenticity provides some kind of foundation, Zobel seems to be justifying his project on more than mere fidelity to fact, and this is perhaps the key to the vastly differing reactions Compliance has provoked.  Do the events highlight something pervasive and worrying about the human psyche – a modern day example of the Milgram Experiment, confirming of our unthinking susceptibility to authority?  Or do they simply re-enact a one-off freak occurrence – a perfect storm of nastiness, perversity and stupidity?

Ultimately it is the viewer’s answer to this question that will dictate their verdict on Compliance.

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