Ready to take your order

Niall Anderson watches two very different cinematic confidence tricks

The Sting
Paul Newman knows more than you know

As the old joke has it: on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. But what kind of dog are you? Are you housetrained? Do you like children? Do you have any infectious diseases? Are you even, actually, a dog?

Hoaxes and confidence tricks have always been fertile ground for drama, but certain crops have withered in recent years. The clever confidence caper (epitomised by The Sting) doesn’t seem to flourish as it used to. If it hasn’t quite died out, it’s been genetically modified into something almost unrecognisable. The films of Christopher Nolan, for instance, are all confidence capers at root, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the overbearing foliage.

Besides, there’s a new harvest. Films about, for want of a better term, being a dog. Where once the cinematic conman played a short game, hoping to trick himself into money or out of danger, he now does what he does indefinitely and for no immediately intelligible reason. His first hope is that you’ll accept him as a dog. His highest hope is that you’ll accept him as a dog for a really long time. The usual pleasures of the cinematic con trick – whether and how he’ll get away with it – are replaced by the mopier issue of why he wants to be a dog in the first place.

Catfish (2010) remains the exemplar of this new tricky cinema. A transparent and risibly faked “documentary” about how social media allows people to disguise their real identities, Catfish takes callow New York brothers the Schulmans into the American heartland to discover that the hot twentysomething pixie one of them fancies is actually a dowdy middle-aged woman with no friends and a lot of Facebook accounts. There is shock, followed by hugging and learning. The Schulman brothers learned so much, in fact, that they felt compelled to franchise their wisdom into Catfish: The TV Show – an MTV production in which Nev Schulman spies on internet daters and exposes them if they’re not telling the truth.

This seems to me to be a fairly crippled notion of the truth. It is also a fairly obvious bit of reactionary posturing about the rise of online communication. But the note of paranoia – the idea that you can’t trust anybody till you see them in the flesh – feels authentic in both its fear and naivety. Everything will be all right once all the masks are dropped. Two films coincidentally released this week take on this idea in very different ways.

Dreama Walker has a very bad day at work in Compliance
Dreama Walker has a very bad day at work in Compliance

The first is Craig Zobel’s Compliance. A lightly fictionalised account of a real event, Compliance takes us to a fast food restaurant in the American Midwest. A police officer calls the restaurant’s duty manager, telling her that one of her employees is suspected of theft. Police are even now searching the employee’s home and will be over right away, but could the duty manager do a hard-working cop a favour? Could she take the suspect off duty and hold her in the storeroom till the back-up squad arrives? Of course, officer: you betcha.

Things go downhill from there. The back-up squad doesn’t arrive, so the cop deputises the duty manager to lead the investigation for him. She starts by searching the girl’s purse and bag, but when nothing incriminating turns up the investigation obviously has to go further, and go further it does – in the most degrading direction imaginable. The horror only ends late at night, when somebody has the wherewithal to phone the actual police and discovers that they know nothing about the supposed theft and can come over right away.

Compliance prompted walkouts when it first screened at Sundance last year. Zobel has defended the film on the grounds that it’s based on documented facts, and he has a point, but I prefer to think the audience walked because the film just isn’t much good. It is careful, patient and well-acted; it skirts round potentially exploitative content without hiding the awfulness of what’s happening; but it’s also dramatically inert and altogether too pleased with its own thesis – that people will do anything to satisfy someone in authority.

Zobel’s chief dramatic mistake is in focussing almost entirely on what happens in the storeroom. As a result, the hoax never feels like it isn’t a hoax. The wider context (an understaffed restaurant on a busy weekend, with everybody running in and out but nobody taking charge) is alluded to in a series of arty cutaways, but never really makes itself felt. Indeed, the cutaway scenes are dubiously recruited into the central thesis, suggesting that working for The Man is just a degree or two away from strip-searching a teenager and making her do jumping jacks to see if drugs fall out of her vagina.

The hills are alive with the sound of death squads. Joshua Oppenheimer's 'The Act Of Killing'.
The hills are alive with the sound of death squads. Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act Of Killing’.

Better by far – but even more difficult to watch – is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing, an extraordinary documentary about the leaders of the Suharto death squads of Indonesia in the 60s. Retired and complacent men, some of them very well rewarded, they are only too happy to talk to Oppenheimer about their actions. In fact, they’ll go further: they’ll re-enact them. Oppenheimer asks the men to pick a genre and write a script – he’ll film them as they want to be filmed.

So we see real-life murders replayed as westerns, as 40s noir, even as a musical. The retired gangsters play killers and victims: a conscious bit of provocation on Oppenheimer’s part that first causes nervous laughter, then resentment, and finally a stricken recognition that all that murder may not have been entirely to the good.

There is, strictly speaking, no hoaxing here. Oppenheimer may have deeper motives than he expresses to his subjects, but he never actively misleads them. Nevertheless, the greatest discomfort of watching The Act Of Killing is the feeling that these old men – murderers though they are – are participating in something they don’t fully understand. The film is executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, but even their experiments in subjective documentary seem hidebound in comparison. Indeed, the only film I can compare it to is Herzog’s Heart Of Glass: a queasy fictional piece for which the entire cast was hypnotised every day.

Both Compliance and The Act Of Killing end with unmaskings, of sorts, but there is no hugging and learning in either of them. In fact, the dominant note at the end of both films is fear. In the sealed-off world of Compliance, this fear is perhaps too easily arrived at: the hoax is over, but the lies have just begun. In The Act Of Killing we see Anwar Congo, former executioner, suddenly begin to wonder if he’s ever actually known himself. The question of what kind of dog you are isn’t just one for strangers; it’s a thing you have to ask yourself.

Compliance is on general release in the UK from 22 March through Soda Films. The Act Of Killing is on limited release through Final Cut.

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