Here's a movie that upset me. That was trying to upset me, but more enraged me due to its poor handling of the material at hand than due to what it was going for. "Compliance" by Craig Zobel, a man making a career based around films about lying to and humiliating people, is a misfire, a film that's way too quick to vilify and build up disturbing incident. It makes many problematic decisions that derail it from being a meaningful provocation.
Even if events like the one portrayed here have taken place, Zobel nonetheless crudely fashions the situation in an implausible way and hammers hard at his message with contemptuously drawn, stereotyped characters and setting. He removes the audience from sympathizing with the characters (either mistakenly or because he wants us really to hate humanity) by making all the details of the situation, most importantly ones unknown to the central players, known to us from early on. And, with a crappy film-school aesthetic designed to try to dramatize a scenario lacking in cinematic appeal and a score that tries to force you into anger, "Compliance" seethes.
There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker being angry at people. Lars von Trier, most prominently with "Dogville," does this sort of thing all the time, but he knows how and picks his subjects well. Zobel clearly has ire towards the myriad of sexually abusive fast-food prank calls that have sprouted up recently. That these things happened is terrible. But you or I know that just by reading about them. Making a whole film whose core thesis is "strip-searching dehumanizes" or "fast-food working conditions suck" is a waste of time. There has to be more. Zobel scores few points for essentially documenting an inherently appalling spectacle. It's how he treats it, and earns it (or, in this case, doesn't), that really proves what he's all about. And he's done a shitty job of validating it, much like Ben Wheatley ("Kill List") and Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") have recently. The emotions shown by the actors I guess are worth something, but even they seem somewhat calculated and slapdash. I admit that I was held by "Compliance" for much of its running time. But I would have been whatever way this story had been told, and I wish it had been under the control of someone much more capable, someone who could have seen the potential depths. D