Craig Zobel, 2012
“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn. I want death to find me planting cabbages.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Owing much to Steven Soderbergh’s wholly fictional, inexplicably underrated, and widely misunderstood Bubble (2005), Craig Zobel’s COMPLIANCE is based on a string of true-life events (70 incidents similar to the one depicted in the film) where a man masquerading as a police officer phones the supervisor of an American fast-food outlet with instructions that she must detain a young female employee who is the focus of a criminal investigation (a customer of the food outlet has accused the young woman of theft). The “officer” assures the supervisor that the owner of the outlet has full knowledge of the situation, and expects her to assist the police in their enquiries.
So begins a protracted ordeal for all concerned (including the audience), as the young woman is systematically humiliated and abused by co-workers who not only strip her of clothing but also her self-repect and fundamental human rights.
One could argue that the true-life events are disturbing enough without reading additional subtext into them, particularly when there is a clear parallel with the ‘authority and obedience’ experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 60s – where people willingly committed potentially lethal actions against others when reassured that an authority figure would assume responsibility. Many reviews have cited Nazi atrocities, but I have yet to read one that points to the real elephant in the room: the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the complicity of American citizens for acquiescing to specious policies and actions under the auspices of ‘security and defence’. The creators of Compliance may not have intended the film to be read in such specifically political terms, but the parallel is obvious nonetheless, which makes the complete lack of commentary along these lines in reviews (American or otherwise) very surprising. Or is it?
I’d like to think that the following summary isn’t mere allegorical conjecture on my part. Those who have seen the film can judge for themselves.
• A man assumes a position of unquestioned authority: leadership, government.
• He lies to and manipulates a group of workers: a nation deceived; systematic power and control.
• He gains their complicity and involves them in pernicious amoral activity: justified imperialism.
• An innocent individual is accused of a false crime: demonising and dehumanising false enemies.
• The individual is repeatedly abused by co-workers: an endless supply of compliant soldiers.
Ironically, the film has been accused of 'abusing' audiences with increasingly nasty provocations, presumably because watching Compliance is hard going at times. Such accusations are similar to those levelled at Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and (years before) Pasolini’s Salo (1975), confrontational films with political subtexts that are still invisible to many viewers.
Aimed at a broad audience, Compliance relies on recognisable and easy to negotiate filmmaking conventions, such as clearly identifiable character types, a requisite music score, and an unambiguous narrative structure. There is no Haneke-like distanciation here, and some points are made with a heavy hand, but for the most part Zobel manages the unfolding events with tact and assurance, although I will concede that there are moments when he treads on thin potentially voyeuristic ice, where viewers might feel unnecessarily complicit.
I also wonder about his decision to shift from the effective device of the perpetrator being a malicious unseen presence to seeing the character in his home, casually making lunch while victimising his quarry. By acquainting us with the perpetrator, Zobel was obliged to show his eventual arrest, a concession to mainstream expectations for narrative closure and some semblance of justice. Given that 69 of the 70 real-life attacks were successful, it might have been effective if the unseen perpetrator had been allowed to vanish, which could have been a more haunting and unsettling conclusion – and a more politically damning one.
The final section of the film (which constitutes a kind of coda) shows an equally unsettling form of victimisation when the hapless supervisor is called to account on television, a sequence that references an actual ABC news item that can be viewed on YouTube.
It’s interesting that this final scene depicts the media as more aggressive and judgemental than the disquietingly passive style of the actual ABC interview, but there’s an even greater and more telling difference in how the supervisor is portrayed … which I’ll leave you to discern. Compliance is a very effective depiction of what Stanley Milgram called ‘The Agentic State’, a condition of submission to regulation and abrogation of responsibility. The Agentic State is characteristic of the way present day society functions, particularly within corporate structures, politics, social services, the courts, etc., wherein individuals yield to authority and become alienated from their actions: ‘I was following orders’, ‘It’s store policy’, ‘Your call is important to us’, ‘Because the bible tells me so’. The Agentic State is the embodiment of acquiescence, unquestioning submission to (and faith in) systems of authority and control (political, social, corporate, and religious).
Look under any rock and things crawl out. A person of conscience is obliged to look. Awareness is the first step towards understanding and liberation. Indifference resides at the very heart of ‘the banality of evil’.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader