By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Compliance may very well be the most disturbing movie of the year. Is it a slasher/torture porn/horror film? Well, no, not exactly … and yet, we’re presented with the frightening fact that in many cases, the human brain will relinquish all elemental logic and self-determination when confronted by an authority figure demanding unwavering obedience. What?!? Is this some tract about a totalitarian police state? A tour of the tortured minds of Holocaust survivors? Some sci-fi fantasy that takes place in worlds beyond our wildest imagination?
Nope. Compliance is set in modern America, couched inside a fast food restaurant in suburban Ohio. As stated in the opening credits of filmmaker Craig Zobel’s suspense drama, this story is “inspired by true events” – and is, in actuality, a fairly accurate dramatization of a 2004 crime that occurred at a McDonald’s in Mt. Washington, Kentucky. Not only is this a chilling realization, but the fact that similar events have occurred over 70 times in nearly a decade is dumbfounding. So, yes, maybe Compliance is a horror film after all.
The movie begins slowly, purposefully: After a problem with the walk-in freezer that makes a busy Friday especially problematic, the fast-food joint “ChickWich” gets a call from the police, asking to speak to the supervisor in charge. The harried manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets on the phone and is told by Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) that a young blonde employee (he fishes for her name before Sandra offers up “Becky”) has supposedly taken money out of a customer’s purse. He claims that he’s currently with the customer who’s making the complaint, and that he has a surveillance tape to prove the theft. But since he’s too swamped with other matters to come down to the restaurant, he requests Sandra’s help in detaining Becky (Dreama Walker). Such help will consist of strip-searching the girl, taking her clothes, and, with only a scrap of apron to cover her naked body, forcing her to sit in Sandra’s office while she’s “guarded” by one man after another. As Daniels continues his telephonic commands to Becky and her assorted guards, he employs a clever mix of intimidation and flattery in an ever-escalating exercise of humiliation and abuse.
Though we know immediately that the caller is a fake, filmmaker Zobel holds back before revealing “Officer” Daniels. First we see his hand, then the back of his head, then ultimately the man himself. We watch as he conducts his barrage of sadism: taking notes, making a sandwich, swapping prepaid SIM cards into his anonymous cel phone, usually smiling to himself. The film is primarily a two-scene set-up, switching between harshly lit close-ups of Sandra, Becky and others in the restaurant’s office, versus Daniels, conducting his aberrant prank from his comfortable, upscale home.
Zobel states that after he initially read about the 2004 incident, it stuck with him. And inspired by the 1961 Milgram Experiment created by Yale psychology professor Stephen Milgram, Zobel’s working title for the film was indeed Milgram. (Said experiment was enacted to study blind obedience, primarily as it applied to WWII war criminals who’d claimed “they were merely following orders” and could not be held responsible for their actions.)
Shouldering the role as the increasingly imbecilic manager, Dowd is superb as an overweight, ineffective woman intent on pleasing her superiors, while personally jealous of Becky’s youth and beauty. Sandra’s initial defense of the shaken employee is all but forgotten as we watch the manager’s fascinating turn from empathy to cruel dismissal. In a revelatory scene at the opening, she tries to be “one of the girls” as she butts her way into co-worker boy-talk, confiding that she, too, has quite an active sex life. But after she leaves, the younger women make fun of her, unaware that Sandra is spying on them. And so Zobel’s double-edged dagger of surveillance and humiliation begins.
As the victim, first-time feature actress Dreama Walker is riveting in the highly-demanding role of Becky, portraying an upbeat, normal, slightly-stubborn 19-year-old who will incrementally erode, all but disappearing into an ashen echo of herself.
Becky isn’t particularly to blame for her wide-eyed fear of possible jail time. Divested of her phone – and the possibility of calling someone for help – the best she could do would be to run naked through the restaurant, begging strangers for help, unsure if this would make her situation worse. However, it is the manager’s actions that confound, as well as Becky’s co-workers who don’t lift a finger to help. Like the victim, we sit in the theater, immobile, wanting to scream at this singular outrage. But, as mentioned earlier, the fact that this kind of sheep-like behavior has happened in over 70 occurrences in small towns across America is incomprehensible.
Offering a grotesque yet worthwhile look at the subject, Compliance isn’t an easy film to watch. Nor is it without faults, such as the overabundance of non-essential tracking shots, and the frustrating lack of exploration into both the caller’s and Becky’s character. That said, Zobel may have purposely written Becky in broad strokes, with the idea that she could be the face of any pretty girl in any town, U.S.A.
That so many people are so easily led by the mere idea of authority, victimized by their own gullibility, fear and ignorance, is shocking. That we can’t rationalize the behavior as belonging to illegal aliens afraid of deportation, or felons skirting the law, or those suffering from mental incapacity is even worse. These people are fully functioning adults. These people have had, at minimum, a high school education. These people are gainfully employed. These people … just might be us. Oh my God.
Rating on a scale of 5 billion prank callers served: 3.5
Release date: August 31, 2012 (previous ltd. release August 17, 2012)
Written and Directed by: Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey
Running Time: 90 minutes