– Summary –
Director : Craig Zobel
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffery, Ashlie Atkinson.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes.
Synopsis: A fast food outlet employee is accused of theft by a policeman over the phone, setting off a brutal night of degradation for the young woman.
What we think : The kind of film that you’d never believe could ever happen, unless it actually had. Featuring stunning central performances from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker, Compliance is an infuriating, horrifying story of unquestioning obedience in the face of astonishingly brazen evil. I’m loathe to say it’s a wonderful film, but it’s definitely unmissable. And entirely unbelievable. Powerful, mesmerising in its OMG-factor, Compliance deserves your attention.
I’m a police officer. Now get undressed.
It’s a question we don’t often ask, and perhaps it’s one we should. The stock we place in figures of authority, those placed in positions of power over the general public, is usually pretty high. Police officers for example, are often seen as the backbone of a civilized society, in that we obey their requests with nominally indifferent acquiescence. When somebody on the phone claims to be an officer of the law, how do we take their word for it? Do we take their word for it? Compliance asks that very question, and has the backing of a uniquely sinister set of real-life circumstances on which to base itself, making the dramatic arc of the film so much more potent than it would were it a complete fiction. Because the truth is often stranger than fiction. Compliance is compelling, subversive, dark and cruelly nonchalant in its methodology, for what it lacks in “flair” it makes up for in chilling details about a case that’s as horrifying as it is unbelievable. It will make you question how people can fall for scams, for hoax calls and pranks of this nature – the gullibility of those involved here is the defining motivator for the film’s power, and if you’ve ever been the victim of a scam of some kind, perhaps you’ll empathize with what this movie says about us as a society.
Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the manager of a fast food chain outlet in small-town USA, when she receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer – Daniels, he calls himself. Sandra believes that Officer Daniels has been speaking with her regional manager, and that a crime has recently been committed in her store. Accusing one of Sandra’s staff with theft, Sandra is instructed to bring counter server Becky (Dreama Walker) to the rear office and hold her until an officer can attend. Sandra is instructed via the phone to have Becky strip-searched, something Sandra is hesitant about but Daniels makes a play to ask the regional manager for permission in this extenuating circumstance. Becky agrees to the strip search if only to get it out of the way, otherwise she could spend a night in prison. As the day turns to night, Becky is kept naked in the store’s back office, watched by Sandra’s fiancee, Van (Bill Camp), who is given instructions of a sexual nature to perform with Becky.
Compliance is a film about human nature, and a shockingly confronting one it is. Your tolerance for what happens on the screen will depend on how far you are willing to go with believing that people can behave like this. The story itself, the events on display, actually happened, but you’ll be infuriated by moments of poor judgement and excruciating gullibility by several members of the cast, and just want to throw things at the screen. Then again, Compliance isn’t a film you should enjoy watching, because it’s essentially one enormous sexual assault film, but purely as a film, it’s a scorching indictment of human nature and our desire to please those we see as authoritarian.
Key to the film working as well as it does are the two central performances by Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker. Dowd, as Sandra, has that motherly, world-weary managerial character down solid, and you get the sense that even when she doesn’t want to go along with what the caller on the phone insists she does, she has no real reason to doubt herself. She does what she’s told because her subservience is ingrained to the point where she no longer questions authority figures, and one must ask oneself how you might act in a similar scenario. Dreama Walker is terrific as Becky, who finds herself in a situation she cannot control by people she sees as authority figures themselves – Sandra, the officer on the phone, heck, even her fellow work colleagues – and hers is a performance of subtlety and nuance. Whereas Sandra simply avoids facing the harsh truth of what is asked of her, Becky is the one “complying” with what is asked of her, and it’s a soul-destroying example of subservience laid bare. The rest of the cast are excellent, although the film hangs on Dowd and Walker primarily, while Pat Healy’s silky-smooth “Officer Daniels” encourages, berates, insinuates and aggravates from the other end of the line.
Compliance is astonishingly confronting film-making, and director Craig Zobel could be forgiven for wanting to go a little “how weird is this shit?” on us; he refuses, opting instead for a highly restrained, naturalistic and unfiltered style of camerawork and editing. Compliance is set inside a fast-food outlet, so the tacky, icky grease-and-burger flipping inanity of the location is ever-present. The harsh lighting, the boring offices and humdrum doldrum of the store counterpoints starkly with the truly evil events unfolding in the back office. Zobel’s camera never strays from the depravity of things (although it’s not glorified in any way) and the confronting aspects of what Becky is asked to do aren’t shied away from. There’s a sense of malevolence about the film, an omnipresent human evil behind every frame that never deviates, never blinks, and never give us a break. You can feel the layer of anger seeping from Zobel’s framing, his use of sound, his editing, and Dowd’s powerful performance. Where Zobel does his best work is making it seem like Sandra isn’t the most obtuse woman who ever lived – it would have been easy to set her us as the “fall guy” in this film, falling for the ruse employed by the faux Officer Daniels, but Zobel takes the harder road of presenting her as she is, a flawed human under duress and confusion, who simply wants to get back to running her store. These are people who could be you or I, and if you take away only one thing from Compliance, it’s probably that. This could have been you.
As mentioned, what Compliance lacks in “flair” it makes up for with jugular-invading anger, a seething diatribe against complicit ambivalence towards unquestioning authority. It’s not overt, nor is it probably even something Zobel and his team tried to do ostensibly, but the end result is something of an indictment on current societal norms to just accept what we see and hear as the truth. Mind you, if anyone called me claiming to be a policeman and asked me to strip-search one of my work colleagues (hell, search anyone) over the phone, I’d be hanging up immediately. As impossible as it is to believe, some people wouldn’t. And as impossible as it is to believe, the events in this film actually happened, which is scarier than I want to believe as well. Compliance isn’t a film one can “like”, and it’s certainly not a film you “enjoy” as far as settling back with the wife and a wine on a cold Saturday night, but that’s not to say it’s a film entirely worth skipping. In some respects, it’s a film I’d say is essential viewing for all, if only to make one question the validity of those who claim authority with impunity.
Make no mistake, Compliance is a terrific film. It’s also a horrifying one. Confronting, featuring a terrible evil visited upon naively innocent people, Compliance is shocking, utterly compelling, unflinching film-making of the highest caliber. Much like Requiem For A Dream, a film which is equally horrific but also utterly brilliant, Compliance peeks at the dark underbelly of human nature and exposes the oozing pustules beneath. You’d be a fool to miss this one.