Friday, March 1, 2013


Denis Diderot's novel Jacques the Fatalist includes a wonderful anecdote told by Jacques that goes like this: When I was working for the Comte de N__ his young boychild took sick and it was feared he might die. The family and staff gathered around his bed and a priest was summoned. Though very weak he lifted his head to speak. His distraught father leant in to hear what might be the boy's dying request and heard: " I would like everybody to hold hands." Without being asked, everyone in the room held hands with the person next to them. The boy spoke again: "Could you form a circle around my bed, please?" In seconds everyone had formed a circle. they waited. "Now'" said the boy, "could you all start dancing around the room?"

The joke goes nowhere. Diderot himself has to interrupt it going any further by putting a distraction in the story. This film tells a more serious version of this joke.

We open in a diner which we know is going to be in trouble with its menu from the get go. The freezer was turned off overnight and the the stock is now garbage. There is a strong suspicion that one of the staff members has done it on purpose. The middleaged Sandra, manager, has to cope with this and the disrespect of her typically adolescent staff. One telling moment finds her first trying to impress the younger Marti and Becky by hinting at a wild sex life. The younger women ridicule her when she has gone but we see Sandra witnessing it, worried, embarrassed. The shift begins. It is busy and fraught with the complaints of customers sending substandard food back or the lack of menu items due to the shortages due to the freezer incident.

In the middle of this Sandra gets a phone call. It's the police. A staff member fitting Becky's description has been accused by a customer of stealing money from her purse. Sandra is instucted to take Becky aside and sort it out while the cop stays on the phone. She takes the teenager into a storeroom and follows the prompts of the police officer on the phone in interrogating Becky about the accusation. Becky is at first defiantly outraged at the suggestion but, threatened with jail her inexperience bids her to comply. Sandra is visibly distressed, trying to do the right thing at the same time as maintain her authority in front of this teenager who has just made fun of her. Her own compliance is thus sealed.

At this point and right up to the extent of Becky's strip search the viewer's anxiety over no one questioning the authenticity of the caller's authority and it is at this point where we might recall that we have already seen a thirtyish man in the car park shouting into the phone and catching sight of Becky as she walks to the diner to start her shift. Not too long after this we see him in a plush suburban home, on the phone as Officer Daniels, plugging on with his phone prank.

Back at the diner the prank turns into a constant humiliation of Becky leading to nightmarish  extremes.

Well, they would be nightmarish but there's a problem here. Even though we've been driven to all but yell at the screen for someone to ask for a badge number or even outright refuse we've kept it in because the hand on the helm has been steady. Our own compliance with the film's manipulation has been pleasurable. But something happens when we get the big reveal. (This reveal, by the way, is made obvious in the trailer that Nova was playing before every movie for a month or so.) The victims of the prank lose our sympathy and immediately turn into suckers. The delight frequently twisting the bonetight ginger perpetrator's face, however vile his actions are, however shameful, being the more powerful force he begins to command our sympathy.

There is an attempt to counterbalance this by keeping the pace so even that it takes on a documentary veracity but the problem is that feels slower rather than even, the victims, now dupes, however degraded look increasingly stupid and worthy of their humiliation. Is this itself a comment on us, a kind of Funny Games without the big blinding pointers? No, it's a miscalculation.

We have been primed for a thriller, primed to feel a joyous outrage at the injustice and cruelty we will witness. The pitiable hierarchy of the diner with its fear-yellow decor and staff uniforms, the mediocrity of its standards and ideals serve as a fecund field for the exploitation of anyone who wants to play with it. The kind of psychopathy driving the prankster would find this destructible thing as irresistable as an OCD cleaner a spot on a tabletop. When we are forced to conclude he is so compelled we are similarly compelled to view his victims as contemptible. Past this point, Becky's degradation has a self-shamingly satisfying feel to it. Why? Because we are watching superiority and we side with it whether we like it or not. See also Schindler's List or almost any Speilberg movie where the bad guy, be it SS officer or shark, is the centre of gravity while some flavourless goose of a protagonist waits around for the director to throw him a break.

This is such a pity as having subverted its own outrage, Compliance can neither recover and resume its path nor find another into any real examination of the perp; he's just a bad guy; they are victims. It's also a pity as there is real talent happening there on screen. The cinematography continually surprises us by finding sublime beauty in this dowdy wrapper of Americana. The sound mix is splendid and the score mercifully restrained. The performances throughout are natrualistic and assured. The setup is outstanding. The final moments are also highly poignant or would be if the film as whole hadn't just shot itself in the foot. You could take ten to fifteen minutes of screen time away from this already short (by current standards) film and you'd have a heart tearer. As it is you get to sing "hey we all got grime" merrily ever after without the thrills or genuinely examined darkness of a Celine or a Lynch. But who are the dupes? We for watching? The filmmakers for losing control of their own purposes? What a bloody pity but I couldn't care less.

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