Tony Robbins is raped in The Shawshank Redemption. We don’t see it, but the action is implied. The camera slowly retreats away from the conflict as Morgan Freeman’s narration regretfully informs us that the events depicted were ‘no fairy-tale’.
When defending my own hatred for The Shawshank Redemption to its many ardent fans, I frequently bring up this conflation of words and image as a key example of the film’s misjudged intentions. Of course, I don’t actually wish to see Tim Robbins raped; at the same time, nor do I want the camera to shy away from confrontational images that depict the reality of prison life.
Take Steve McQueen’s Hunger as a braver example, in which grotesque images of Michael Fassbender’s deterioriation are par for the course, along with scenes of brutal violence grounded in an irrefutable reality. Shawshank offers glimpses of violence, the bare minimum to satisfy those of us with minor bloodlust but total aversion to anything remotely sexualised. What makes Darabont’s film so revolting is its overall rose-tinted portrayal of prison life: a fairytale whereby an impervious Robbins schemes around the authorities to reunite with Morgan Freeman on a beach. Its camera’s preference to cower away from difficult instances is merely one ingredient in a larger saccharine mess, but it’s demonstrative of Hollywood’s blanket cowardice.
So it was with folded arms that I watched Compliance, interested to see how director Craig Zobel would approach an unfortunate scenario that has reoccurred in various forms over 72 times across 30 US states.
In this version, a young woman and fast food worker named Becky falls victim to a prank phone call from a man alleging to be a police officer, who accuses her of stealing and recommends she be taken to the restaurant’s storeroom until further notice. Becky is initially asked to strip at the officer’s behest as a succession of increasingly ‘compliant’ individuals guard her. Her wretched luck reaches its nadir when she fellates one particularly weak-minded gentleman who has succumbed easily to the caller’s requests.
Zobel wants us to think this is clever. We’re supposed to view these normal people as compliant in the seedy manipulations, and on another level we’re expected to examine the extent to which Becky also willingly obeys the ruse. But some critics have displayed poor judgement in their assessment of the film as having us claim complicity in the events onscreen. Unlike Haneke’s finger-wagging Funny Games, this feature’s title alone is apparently enough to send select viewers into a frenzy of introspection.
Except – as with Shawshank – the camera shies away. And again, it’s not that we wish to see the offending action. Although by drawing away, Zobel is unconsciously making a statement for everyone: Enough is enough, but anything up to this point has been completely acceptable. When the director’s camera makes these kinds of weighty decisions on the audience’s behalf, the viewer ceases to become at all complicit and is instead left at the mercy of the filmmaker whose hand they hold.
Zobel’s generic direction leaves little else to chew on; in more talented hands, Compliance could have been an interesting experiment. As it stands, Zobel has directed, with astounding mediocrity, a topless young woman paraded around by callous elders. When you subtract potentially thought-provoking form and content, you’re left with only one thing: plain exploitation.