Compliance (2012)

Compliance is a disturbing film. Some critics are laughing at its ‘unbelievable’ plot, despite it being based on true, verifiable stories(obviously, don’t click if you do not want to know what happens in the film). I think these critics are missing the point (I would link to some, but I don’t want to single any one out in particular). It is not a story to be entertained by. The writer-director, Craig Zobel, is not wanting us to get lost in the story. We are supposed to be questioning the believability here. In our questions of “How could this ever happen?” or our flabbergasted exclamations of “There’s no way this would ever happen!”, we should be reminding ourselves: But it did happen. And go back to our original question.
It’s all there in the title: Compliance. Just as some people are programmed to never respond well to authority, others are the opposite. There are many people that would do whatever someone in authority tells them to do, because that is what they have been told is the right thing to do. And everyone wants to do the right thing (even if they don’t know what that actually is). This is backed up by countless examples like the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment. Society conditions subservience. After all, that is what civilization is: a collective reigning in of our individual base instincts and desires.

What makes this film so interesting is the way in which it leaves us to work all of this out for ourselves. Perhaps I am putting way too much onto the film myself that is not actually there in its construction. I would argue this is not the case, though. It is specifically framed in ways to prompt us to bring up these questions. However, it is only a questioning film for those in the audience that are prompted to question it. It is making its point by showing us our own predilections. If you say, “that could never happen”, then are you predisposed toward not being one of the characters in the story? Do I find this disturbing because I am one of those people who is more likely to blindly follow authority? I don’t think I am, but I wonder if there are less extreme situations where I have/have not done just that. For those that are so cynical as to laugh at the unbelievability of the situations, I wonder if some of these viewers are merely laughing at their own blindness; not being able to see the nuances of psychological control that are at work here. That may seem pretentious on my part to suggest this, but since these things actually did happen, one has to wonder why some people have such a strong negative reaction toward the film’s believability. There is a lot to not ‘enjoy’ about the picture, but I don’t expect to be entertained by everything I see. Sometimes a film makes me think. That is usually an indication that I will want to let people know about it. Because I allowed it to manipulate me into a state of contemplation. The difference here between this film and, say, primetime news or a non-fiction documentary, is that it is dramatized. We are predisposed toward empathy (and therefore emotional illogicalness) here. Like with his debut feature (Great World of Sound), Zobel gives us an underlying layer of emotional argument filtered through a documentary-like aesthetic. Though, most of the news is just like that nowadays too. Maybe a little more critical thinking in that arena might do us viewers some good too…


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September 2012
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