by Julien Faddoul
wd – Craig Zobel
ph – Adam Stone
pd – Matthew Munn
m – Heather McIntosh
ed – Jane Rizzo
cos – Karen Malecki
p – Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Theo Sena, Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Ashlie Atkinson
It was 1963 when psychologist Stanley Milgram created his electric “shock generator” with 30 switches. The switch was marked clearly in 15 volt increments, ranging from 15 to 450 volts. He also placed labels indicating shocks level such as “Moderate” (75-120 Volts) and “Strong” (135-180 Volts). The switches 375-420 Volts were marked “Danger: Severe Shock” and the two highest levels 435-450, was marked “XXX”. This “shock generator” was in fact phony and would only produce sound when the switches were pressed.
40 subjects (males) were recruited via mail. In the test, each subject was informed clearly that their payment was for showing up, and they could keep the payment no matter what happens after they arrive. They were introduced to a fellow subject (who was in fact a confederate acting as a subject). The two subjects (the real subject and the con-subject) drew slips of paper to indicate who was going to be a “teacher” and who was going to be a “learner”. This lottery was rigged, and the real subject would always get the role of “the teacher”. The teacher saw that the learner was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached. The subject was then seated in another room in front of the shock generator, unable to see the learner. The subject was instructed to teach word-pairs to the learner. When the learner made a mistake, the subject was instructed to punish the learner by giving him a shock, 15 volts higher for each mistake. If the subject asked who was responsible if anything would happen to the learner, the experimenter answered “I am responsible”. This gave the subject a relief and many continued.
These experiments that Milgram conducted were all I could think about during Compliance, a new film that had its premiere in January of this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The point of the experiments was merely to see how ordinary people complied with authoritative orders and the feeling of not being held responsible for their actions. They were used as part of the fallout of the Holocaust. You can freely view these experiment tapes online, or even in high school psychology classes. This film however, written and directed by Craig Zobel, should be cut up into guitar picks. Rarely have I been so unmoved, so jaded, so downright drowsed to the point of infuriation by a film that is based on such a fascinating true story.
The true story is this: Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a fast-food restaurant manager having an already bad day when the phone rings. She's told she's speaking to a policeman. Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) asks if Sandra has a young blond woman working up front. She does: Becky (Dreama Walker), who is 19. The cop then tells Sandra a woman in the police station is complaining that Becky stole something from her purse while it was on the counter, and he can see her doing it on a security tape. Said story occurred on April 9, 2004, when a call was made to a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky by a man claiming to be a police officer. This led to, through a series of escalating and incredibly careless circumstances, a forced sexual assault on the 19-year-old.
I’ve been somewhat, how can I put this delicately: repulsed(!) by the controversy that surrounded this film at Sundance earlier this year. Many viewers apparently walked out of the screening because they were either a) far too stirred by the film that they could no longer take it or b) felt deeply offended by the embarrassment they felt the actors (Walker in particular) were put through. This entire dialogue is absolutely venomous. It as given the movie far too much credit has a cinematic piece. If the film was either a) or b) it would be about something. Compliance isn’t. It’s not confronting, problematic, depressing or offensive, but much, much worse: its dull.
The huge, fatal, horrifying crux of the film is provided by Mr Zobel himself in a title card before the movie begins (in fact even before the title itself). It reads “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” in gigantic letters. The second I saw this, my blood began to boil, for I knew what was to come. Not one single character progression, not one single escalating scene convinces on any level. I kept saying to myself “how could every character, every decision, every action be so utterly stupid”. But none of that matters because it’s “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS”, so any accusation of implausibility is immediately vetoed. This is a despicable artistic attitude that has become quite fashionable over the years and I would very much like it to stop. It doesn’t matter if any piece of art is based on a true occurrence or not, the piece must still be about something.
This allows the actors and director to let the characters to be as stupid as possible without concern. The true story itself is often used as an item of American stupidity. But I could not help but feel in every brain cell I had that these were not characters behaving stupidly, but rather stupid devices in a stupid script by a stupid director. The raw footage of Stanley Milgram’s tapes is far more compelling than Mr Zobel’s film, not only as an account but also, hilariously, as a piece of cinema.
Compliance is too contemptible for words. It’s so ridiculous, so unserviceable; it has so little to offer when neighboured with, not only the real life examples of such cases, but also the cinematic ones that have preceded it. I am completely baffled by the attention it has received from both critics and audiences. Most of whom feel the film is about asking the audience what they would do in such situations. I see it has a textbook example of every that is wrong the cinema today. Get me a guitar.