Sunday, August 12, 2012

Craig Zobel's problematic COMPLIANCE: What do we believe? Why do we believe it?

Phone scams are all around us, and -- who knows? -- probably have been since Mr. Bell gifted us with this form of communication. Have you been receiving, of late, call after call from some foreign-accented fellow who advises you that something is wrong with your computer (well, when isn't there?) and that he has been advised to call you offering help? Yeah, sure. (This happens so often now that I have taken to loudly shrieking obscenities in his ear before hanging up.) The phone scam central to COMPLIANCE -- the new film from Craig Zobel, director and co-writer of the (a little too) much-praised Great World of Sound from 2007 -- is a lot more insidious that this latest computer-fixing fraud.

Mr. Zobel (shown at right) takes the inspiration for his tale -- as do maybe two in five of the screenwriters working these days -- from "true events," changing those events as needed to serve his storytelling and his moral. The latter, which to my mind is timely and smart, wants us to understand how easily we believe what we hear and are willing to accept it and act on it -- when we imagine it is coming from a legitimate authority figure. The former, those storytelling skills, are where I have some problems with the movie.

Are you as alarmed as I by the stupidity of much of our country's population, by its inability to learn anything new or to hold an idea in memory for longer than a few minutes? Think about it: Nearly, perhaps more than, half of our middle and lower classes will vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket this fall, thus going against their own best interests in every way, cutting off their collective nose to spite their face. But the way the characters act throughout Compliance makes voting Republican seem, well, almost minor-league in the dumb department.

The situation is this: the female manager of one of the stores in a fast food chain receives a call from a man claiming to be a local police officer, asking her to help him by immediately questioning one of the manager's younger employees accused of theft. He mentions the manager's boss by name, and this is key, I think, in getting her attention and the fear factor going strongly enough to engage her help. Also, the manner in which he gets the manager (Ann Dowd, above) to identify the possible culprit/suspect (Dreama Walker, below) is psychologically astute on a number of levels.

So much for plot, so as not to give away any more spoilers. The fact that something very much like this scenario has already happened a number of times across the country indicates that this is a subject worth exploring. Further, unlike the situations found in the fine German films The Experiment and The Wave -- both based on real-life events that played out decades ago in Palo Alto, California, in which the subjects knew that they were taking part in some kind of "study" -- the people here in Compliance imagined that all this was absolutely "real-life."

Those people include various co-workers, called-in (or not) to help officiate, and finally even the boyfriend (Bill Camp, above) of our manager, who turns out to be the most "helpful" of all. Zobel allows us to see the actual villain (Pat Healy, below) at work during a good portion the movie, which adds to the suspense at times, but also comes at some expense. By cutting away from the present situation to the new "situation" on the other end of the phone line, the filmmaker risks removing us, along with our belief, from the true dilemma at hand.

In any case, for some of the audience, myself included, that belief was only partially ever there, due to the almost ridiculously sheep-like behavior of, first, the manager toward the "policeman", and then of the staff toward its manager. This is not a criticism of the premise, nor of the acting on display -- the entire ensemble is quite good -- but of the way in which Zobel handles the mounting credulity of the "scamees" and the rather incredible goings-on that follow. These produced occasional guffaws, mine among them, at the press screening I attended, and these were not the occasion of "nervous laughter" that sometimes accompanies suspense thrillers. Instead, they were full-out belly laughs of the "Come on, now! Really?" variety.

Zobel also withholds from us the pivotal scene between Mr. Camp and Ms Walker. And I do not mean the logistics of what went where. But seeing the expression on the faces of these two during that event could have done much toward revealing character and intention, while providing some of the depth and truth that seems to be missing here. Which is too bad, as the film's premise is a lulu, encompassing everything from our current economic times, which have people hanging on to whatever job they have for dear life, to our society, which seems ever more in danger of beco-ming robotic wage slaves who will say yes to just about anything.

For all its faults, Compliance is certainly worth seeing and discussing afterward. I just wish it were a better film. The movie, from Magno-lia Pictures and running 90 minutes, opens this coming Friday, August 17, in New York at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. In the weeks following, it will open in another 25 cities across the country. Click here to see the complete listing of theaters and playdates.

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