Tuesday, February 26, 2013

To Consent and Serve: Compliance explores the limits of control (dvd review)

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Compliance begins by filling the screen with an impossible to ignore announcement that it is based on real life events. It is an important message to have implanted in our minds because at some point the ensuing narrative will likely defy our ability to conceive of this as a plausible account.

Things settle on a picture of quaintness. It could be anywhere in smalltown America: wooded areas, spread out houses, and long stretches of open road. A taut and deadly serious conversation is taking place over a hiccup in the management of a fast food establishment’s operation. It would seem trivial, all this talk of pickles and onions; yet a tense orchestrated score of moody woodwinds and clipped cello strokes lends a mismatched sense of urgency to the exchange.   

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A few moments later comes our first glimpse of the fast food restaurant with the central characters gathered together. The view can best be described as dreary, lifeless. One senses the employees have no personal investment in the task at hand other than making ends meet. Shift manager, Sandra, represents the worst criticisms of middle management. She is at the disposal of higher authority, while the employees she supervises beneath do not view her as a strong leader nor take the job all that seriously.

I believe it is with deliberate purpose that director Craig Zobel lands us within the realm of fast food. Several works of critical nonfiction present the industry as a force that guide the way Americans live, acclimating individuals to homogenizing experiences and stripping away critical thought. In a sense it is a form of control.

And control is what Compliance is all about. Many will be instantly reminded of the well known Milgram Experiment from the 1960’s. For those unfamiliar, this was a social experiment in which participants dubbed ‘teachers’ were instructed to guide an unseen participant ‘learner’ through a series of vocabulary memory tests. Unbeknownst to the ‘teachers,’ who were the true subjects of the experiment, the ‘learners’ were fully aware of the experiment’s conditions and only playing a role. The ‘teachers’ were directed to press a button, which they were told would administer an electric shock to the ‘learner,’ when their responses to the activity were incorrect. Scripted responses were used by the planted ‘learners’ to suggest that the shocks caused them great physical discomfort and threats to their safety, yet unwillingness to continue on the part of the teachers’ were met with authoritative statements that the process must be continued.   

The experiment depicted here is not of the controlled sort. It occurs when, amidst the minimum wage malaise described above, Sandra takes a phone call from someone identifying himself as local law enforcement, who alleges complaints of illegal activity on the part of a cashier, Becky. The caller goes on to enlist Sandra in detaining Becky under the auspice of upholding the law.  One command leads to another and soon, what begins as uncomfortable leads into a series of increasingly severe violations. Meanwhile, the true identity of the caller and his unsettling commands are barely questioned. 

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There are many smaller details in play to make Compliance work so well. The cast’s portrayals of average, perhaps even marginalized Americans, are not caricatures, as they could’ve easily become if guided by less deft directorial hands. The minimalist score is a good match for the sparsely budgeted production, but has enough of a punch to keep one on edge throughout.   

As this is a dvd review, I should describe the features that accompany the film. There is not all that much to speak of, though. Deleted scenes and a commentary track would be interesting, but are not included. Content you will find includes a very brief interview with Zobel and two equally short featurettes. There is a lot of overlapping among them, but they do give some insight into the director’s inspiration to tell this story, as well as the thinking behind creating the space in which the drama mostly unfolds.  

While not loaded with extras,  the thought provoking nature of the film itself makes the dvd a worthy acquisition. Repeated viewings are likely to reveal minute details and nuanced conversations that go unnoticed the first time watching. These provide some interesting shading to the characters.

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Compliance poses some fascinating questions to the audience, and multiple viewings will probably lead to even more ways to consider and discuss the film.

Here are a few of my own ponderings that have come to mind after watching it a few times myself:

What patterns are there when looking at each character who interacts with the caller and how they respond to his commands?

What kinds of social power come into play in the exchanges between female characters from varying generations. And does that necessarily play a role in influencing more formal employee employer negotiations of power?

Looking at the caller’s occupation, does this suggest that there are people whose work involves aptitudes, or formal training even, which is in effect conducive to manipulating others?

A complaint about the movie that is likely to arise from some viewers is that the situation is taken far beyond the point of realistic behavior. It is an arguable perspective. I for one don’t know the details of the actual events Zobel’s film is based on, and I would imagine this is a highly dramatized vision.  

I would respond to such grievances with another question: what would be a reasonable extent to which this nightmarish scenario would play out? The answer to that may be more disturbing than we are willing to accept.

Bonus Features:

Behind The Scenes look at Compliance
Interview with Director Craig Zobel
AXS TV: A Look at Compliance
Theatrical Trailer

COMPLIANCE is out on dvd now from Magnolia Home Entertainment.    

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