Dreama Walker in Compliance

Perception is a funny thing.

What would be your response if a stranger came up to you on the street and asked, "Would you want to watch a movie about a girl being sexually humiliated?"
What if someone you know intimately asked, "Do you want to watch a girl being sexually humiliated?"
And finally, would you willingly witness a girl being sexually humiliated? Now I'm asking you this question, directly.

Does your answer differ depending on how you perceive the question or who is asking the question?

Would your answer differ if the humiliation of the girl was used in a film, rationalized as a convenient vehicle through which other important or relevant questions about societal norms are raised?

If you answered "Yes," "Maybe," or "It depends" to the first or third question, or if your answer changes because it's "just a movie" then perhaps you may find justification for sitting through the entire length of Craig Zobel's film "Compliance."

I couldn't, and didn't.

Not because it disturbed me (I expected- even wanted it to be, disturbing), but because I didn't want to comply with what the director asks from the audience, which is essentially: "Watch this movie about a girl being sexually humiliated in the name of art." Or social commentary. Or even worse, entertainment.

I appreciate extreme cinema and admire filmmakers who are willing to push, even smash, the boundaries of what's considered acceptable. A Serbian Film, Irreversible, I Stand Alone, and Martyrs are examples of films that ask a lot of their viewers and take them to some really horrible places. I don't believe films like these are meant to be enjoyed so much as respected, discussed, and even admired (or in some cases, like Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, simply endured). There's usually some level of artistic or social merit to be found even in the meanest exploitation, torture-porn or grind house film, however small or inconsequential, and let's admit that it's usually the latter. Even in films with no obvious artistic or social merit, there's still the undeniable entertainment value of a mean thriller like Se7en or a nasty scare like A Nightmare on Elm Street, even if it's not your cup of tea. It's unreasonable (or ignorant) to deny that cathartic pleasures and meta-commentary can be found in the Saw films, Catherine Breillat's oeuvre, or the highest-grossing torture-porn movie ever made, The Passion of the Christ. Just because you may not like it doesn't mean it isn't there.

However, there are some films without any of these qualities whatsoever. They can't be justified. They can't be rationalized. Like child pornography, they exist for no other reason other than there's a market for it. Once in awhile I get fooled into thinking a film is going to be something other than what it is. I sit down expecting to experience a thrill, or a scare, and I'm not opposed to feeling traumatized (A Serbian Film) or pummeled (Requiem for a Dream). Bring it on- I can take it. But instead of experiencing any of those reactions I'm sitting there watching the movie and slowly I start to feel like a sleazebag. Like I'm complicit in something really nasty. Complicit in creating a market for something that has no redeeming value whatsoever. That I'm actively participating in the most base human behavior possible by providing my tacit approval in agreeing to watch what is being portrayed onscreen. Only a handful of films have left me feeling this way, including The Girl Next Door (in my opinion the most reprehensible piece of trash ever filmed) and Hitchcock's masterpiece of misogyny, Frenzy.

Where's the line? I guess it's one of perception. Many consider A Serbian Film to cross the line of what's acceptable. Certainly what's portrayed in that film is vile and the fact that the audience is watching it onscreen feels beyond the pale while it's happening. But the fact that the characters in the film are caught in a web of circumstances controlled by forces greater than they can comprehend drives the film's narrative power, as it does in Martyrs. The characters are victims, to be sure, but they're not stupid, willing victims, and there's power in that kind of narrative, no matter how bleak or horrific the story or plot.

In Compliance the audience is forced to watch characters who are stupid do stupid things, and then do vile things because they're too stupid to know any better (at least in the hour I watched before bailing). During the screening I attended, someone in the audience yelled out "No one is that stupid!" and I'd have to agree. In fact, that's probably a mantra entire audiences will repeat silently to themsleves while watching the film, and perhaps the film's palpable tension comes from waiting for one of the characters, any character, to wise-up. My question is, what are you willing to watch while waiting for that moment to come, especially if there isn't the slightest inkling that it will? The sexual humiliation of a young, ignorant girl? I'm not. For me the tension was all about deciding if I wanted to continue to watch. Did I want to be complicit?

In the film, 19 year-old Becky (Dreama Walker) works the counter at a fast food restaurant managed by the harried, drab, middle-aged Sandra (Ann Dowd). Sandra gets a call from a man impersonating a police officer claiming Becky stole money from a customer's purse. He goes on to explain the police can't come over just yet because they are at Becky's house investigating her brother's drug operation, so until they get there, they need Sandra's assistance in confirming Becky has stolen the money and to detain her until they arrive. Following the cop's instructions, Sandra conducts a strip search of Becky, which yields nothing because Becky hasn't actually done anything. In fact it's obvious from the impersonator's first words his story makes little sense, but Sandra, too dim-witted and distracted to stop and question the implausibility of it all, keeps agreeing to the increasingly invasive and obviously illegal requests from the "officer" on the other end of the line. Unable to find the money Becky has stolen, Sandra summons Van, her fiance who has been drinking all night, to the restaurant to take over Becky's detainment and follow the cop's orders while she goes back to managing the restaurant on a busy Friday night. When the buzzed Van is asked by the cop to tell Becky to remove the apron she's using to cover her now naked body with he complies. And she complies, because the cop tells her it's either agree to this or spend the night in jail. The choice is hers. She chooses to comply, and keeps complying, even though every 19 year-old must know that one is innocent until proven guilty and everyone who has completed high school should have heard the phrase "unlawful search and seizure" at least once- even if only during a TV show. At the point where Van is asked by the "officer" to describe what Becky's nipples look like, and after he hesitates for only a moment before complying with this absurd request, we decided it was time to bail. How much more did we need to see? We weren't the only walk-outs, either.

Compliance claims to be "inspired by true events." That's a pretty disturbing notion when you stop to unpack that little bit of information. Whatever really happened in real-life to "inspire" this film was certainly sad, and the psychology of the people involved could be fascinating, but why use it as the basis of a dramatic film? That would take some real skill to pull off and Zobel's script doesn't have it. The real-life circumstances that exist underneath the film's story- the abuse of power, people's blind willingness to submit to authority, the mind-set of victims, the perils of inadequate management in corporations, and sexual abuse in the workplace could all make riveting subjects. But Compliance, despite whatever you read, isn't really about any of those things because the script lacks that one crucial moment when someone tries to the right thing and fails, thus making the conclusion inevitable, however disturbing. Had this been attempted by at least one character (in the first hour at least), I may have stuck around. But it's not there. Not one of the major characters ring true.

There is nothing to watch but one girl's humiliation- one step at a time and while I could watch a documentary about sexual victimization, I have no interest in seeing it dramatized for its own sake. From what I could tell that's all Compliance really offers the audience. For me, it wasn't worth sticking around another 30 minutes to see if I was wrong- I already felt slimed enough and I'm not sure that even if the moment came that far into the film it would have made any difference at that point. In fact I know it wouldn't have.