Thursday, April 4, 2013

Short Take: Compliance

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Craig Zobel’s Compliance is an intellectually smug piece of softcore torture porn. The film was inspired by a rash of incidents involving prank calls to fast-food restaurants and other retail operations. (Click here for the history.) The caller would pose as a police detective and convince the manager to strip-search a young female employee on suspicion of theft. The specific details of the film are taken from the most notorious of these incidents, which occurred at a Kentucky McDonald’s in 2004. In that instance, the young woman victimized was also subjected to an invasive body search and spanking at the caller’s behest. Even worse, she was coerced into performing a sexual act on the manager’s fiancé, who had been brought in to guard her until the “detective” arrived. The film moves the setting to a fictional Ohio chicken restaurant, but it otherwise follows that case closely. Zobel is a capable filmmaker, and he gets good performances from his cast, particularly Ann Dowd, who plays the restaurant’s middle-aged manager. But the film is little more than an extended wallow in the victimization of the young woman (Dreama Walker). One just sits there waiting for the next dreadful thing to happen to her. It’s hard not to fight the impulse to turn the film off, particularly since it feels as if Zobel is rubbing the viewer's nose in what happened to congratulate himself on his "daring" and "honesty." The implicit point is that good people at the behest of authority will do unspeakable things. But that’s ultimately a rationalization to justify playing voyeur to rape. A 2008 episode of the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit TV series, guest-starring Robin Williams, also used the Kentucky incident as a springboard. It dealt with what happened in a fraction of the film’s running time, and it made the exact same point. The episode also kept its depiction of the victim’s suffering to a minimum. It was a much more effective--and tasteful--treatment of the subject. One notes that the SVU series is perhaps the most lurid in the history of network television. When one feels compelled to praise it for its relative restraint, that might just say something about how offensively explicit Zobel’s handling is.

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