Compliance is most evocative as a film experience in which the audience exercises judgment over the various characters on display. Throughout much of the picture, the audience I saw the film with was quite vocal in their disgust – how could the people that the film represents subject themselves to such disturbing acts? For those unfamiliar with the film’s premise, it’s one that contemplates an individual’s capacity to stray from a perceived authority figure, and the subsequent trauma associated with submissiveness. Compliance is not a film that asks questions on the nature of human submissiveness in the face of authority nor does it ever really ask of anything. Instead, as noted in its marketing campaign and in the opening title card of the picture, it is a film that takes the real-life event and merely recounts it. The “Based on True Events” concept is taken to heart, as writer/director Craig Zobel does nothing to synthesize the realities of the situation into anything of significant weight. While there are suggestions made throughout Compliance, going as far as to adopting a victim-blame perspective, it rarely veers too off-course in terms of remaining disarmingly neutral in its anti-synthesis of subject. Whereas the material presented in Compliance is limited in scope, the picture at least presents itself as an interesting conversation piece.
Zobel’s inability to raise direct questions in regards to the prank and its concurrent effect on human behavior raises questions about some of his directorial choices. The film’s title card recalls a picture like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – a film that pulls no punch in the discomfort it provokes. But much of the discomfort in Compliance comes from a place where the audience is privy to information that the characters are not aware of. This subsequently places the audience in a place of superiority (which justifies many of the groans and concerns from audience members who question the stupidity of the event). Most distressing is where Zobel decides to draw a line – in a film that seems to relish in causing the audience to endure such a discomforting situation, Zobel makes some odd decisions in when he wants to be explicit and when he turns away. It again recalls a situation like Funny Games, yet Haneke made some very deliberate choices in ensuring that the audience was just as involved with the situation as its characters – Zobel instead opts to contract and retract without much insight into how this implicates the audience and himself.
I admired certain aspects of Compliance – the visual palette is reminiscent of something David Gordon Green would do earlier in his career (he serves as co-producer for this film). Ann Dowd gives a strong performance. And most of all, the film indirectly provokes discussion. But it’s all a missed opportunity of a film that had material worth mining. From lower class submissiveness to the blurred lines of authoritative distinction, there’s much to dissect in the film’s premise. It’s just an issue of the film never actually addressing any of it.