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Compliance (2012)

September 3, 2012


written by: Craig Zobel

produced by: Sophia Lin, Craig Zobel, Theo Sena, Lisa Muskat & Tyler Davidson

directed by: Craig Zobel

rating: R (for language and sexual content/nudity)

runtime: 90 min.

U.S. release date: August 24, 2012 & August 31, 2012 (limited) 


It’s a busy Friday night at a franchise restaurant in suburban Ohio. The less-than-enthused staff have to deal with a long line of patrons. The harried middle-aged manager has to deal with all of it; the staff, the patrons and a call from the police. The officer on the line tells the manager that he has information confirming that a young girl working the counter has stolen money from a customer’s bag within the last couple hours. The frustrating and enraging events that occur during the rest of this particular evening is hard to believe, but we must since it is “inspired by true events”.  As riveting and provocative as writer/director Craig Zobel’s film is, it would appear it is the polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser, since at least a dozen viewers walked out at the screening I attended.

 Not only did they walk out, but some stormed out and shouted in outrage on their way out. That happened at Sundance earlier this year too and apparently at other festivals and screenings across the U.S. since. The Q&A that followed with Zobel and a psychiatrist (on hand, for good measure) and the interviewer was almost as awkward as the film I had just viewed. So, what’s the deal with this film? How and why is it eliciting such a reaction?

Well, let’s go back to that Friday night at ChikWich, the fast-food joint where the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is just starting to get into what will be quite a situation. She already pre-occupied by the spoiled inventory from the night before, the possibility of their being a secret customer from corporate visiting and the contentious working relationship she has with the teenaged employees, specifically Becky (Dreama Walker), the girl in question. Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, “The Innkeepers”) is asking Sandra to help him out with his investigation, concerned with retrieving the stolen money. He also says that he and associates are busy searching through Becky’s home and stresses that Sandra would really be helping out local law enforcement if she just went along with his requests.

Naturally, Sandra confirms that she will do whatever he needs her to do to help. He is a police officer, after all. No, actually, he’s not. But this is a fact that only we the audience are privy to (early on, in fact) making what is to follow all the more infuriating.

Officer Daniels tells Sandra to bring Becky into the back office, where he can begin to coach the manager through an interrogation. Of course, Becky enthusiastically proclaims that she has done nothing, something the officer prepared Sandra for. He remains encouraging while on the line with the hesitant Sandra, often complementing her on her follow-through. He knows the strip search he has asked her to employ may be uncomfortable, but it is nevertheless quite necessary. It’s either that or Becky goes to jail. Since he’s tied up and won’t be able to make it there in person just yet, proper procedure still needs to take place.



As the night progresses, Sandra is pulled back into the demands of her job, which requires other employees keeping on eye on Becky – so she doesn’t do anything else, Officer Daniels says. It would be preferable that a male watch over the distraught Becky, too – Officer Daniels says. When a male co-worker (and friend of Becky’s) states he wants nothing to do with what is going down, Sandra has no choice but to call in her semi-intoxicated fiance, Van (Bill Camp) to play guard duty and stay on the line with “the police”. Unfortunately, nothing good comes of any of this. In fact, it’s sick and wrong. What transpires is a perfect storm of masterful manipulation and reprehensible humiliation, combined with utter gullibility and sheer stupidity.

This is the kind of film that elicits heated discussion immediately after (and long after) viewing. In the theater I was at, rumblings of discussion could be heard during the second act, rising to palpable wave of discomfort by the hard-to-believe third act. That’s the thing that I kept coming back to – this happened.

As uncomfortable as it was to watch, I was still engrossed and curious to see how Zobel would conclude it all. The names have been changed to protect the innocent (as the saying goes) and the not-so-innocent, but all this did make headlines not long ago. What takes place in “Compliance” is based on what happened at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky in April of 2004. It was one of many prank call incidents that were being reported across the nation at the time. Google it and you’ll find out more and, maybe like me, feel even worse about humanity.

So, how could something like this happen? What in the world was this manager thinking and why wouldn’t this teenager refuse the strip search? How is it that no one put a stop to this before the irreversible took place?

Answers to such questions may come by addressing how many people often just follow along with authority, thinking they’re doing the right thing. Not all people though. I have a instinctual belief that race and class play a factor in it all. I don’t think I’m off-base or alone in such thoughts either. But the biggest factor (one would think) would be plain old common sense, something that is sorely missing in these characters. Some people will do apparently anything to obey the law, even if the law is a voice on the phone.

Zobel does well to subtlety establish where Sandra and Becky are coming from and who these characters are before the dreaded call comes to ChikWich. We see Sandra trying to hold back a sadness, a disappointment with where she is at in life. The opening scene shows Sandra getting chewed out by a deliveryman outside the restaurant and then we see her overhearing Becky talk slanderously about her back inside. We also see Becky brag about how many boys are interested in her with another co-worker. The threat of jail and the already tense working relationship with her manager, may have caused Becky to comply, but what about Sandra? Maybe it’s a chance for her to take the reins and convey a false sense of power at her job and show that everyone a thing or two. Unfortunately, in her compliance and eagerness to “do her part” she becomes complicit in acts of depravity.



Many viewers, including myself, may see Sandra’s behavior and actions as stupid. Zobel knows that while some viewers are squirming in their seats, they’re also thinking “I would never let this happen”, as either Sandra or Becky. That may be true. It’s how I felt. But they’re not me and I’m not them. If anything, what Zobel does is show the audience just how authority-pleasing some people are. It could be that Officer Daniels was quite convincing or just that those at the restaurant involved in this event were either ignorant or paralyzed by it all.

Beyond the obvious themes, “Compliance” feels like a study of one person having power over another, an effective one at that. At no point does Zobel use any one scene here to gratuitously make a point, but rather he methodically unveils the levels of deception and manipulation that occurs, absorbing the audience and challenging them to continue. He knows how upsetting this all is and how difficult it is to see it all move forward. It helps that he shoots the film in almost a documentary style, especially as he sets-up this fast-food atmosphere.

The lived-in dialogue and strong characterization provide the talented cast with some fine material to work with. This finds the performances throughout to be very natural and real, with some bizarre beats here and there from Healy that creeps us out all the more. His chilling work here is just as demanding as the what we see Dowd and Walker go through. Dowd has that frumpy Midwest feel down, while Walker excellently conveys a rising anxiety and desperation that carries over into the audience. These two actresses carry “Compliance”, making it bearable to watch the unbearable.

Most of what Zobel does here had me hooked, but he does hit a few snags that took me out of the film. For one thing, the score feels a little off at times, offering some unnecessarily jarring moments (this is a film that requires a downplayed score). Then for some reason, Zobel sits the camera on a character that’s introduced during the last fifteen minutes of the film for at least a good minute. Why? Who is this person and who cares? It feels strange and off, almost like a different movie. I also have to add that it really bothered me that not one character attempted to put a stop to these awful circumstances. Some did verbally disagree, but no one stepped in.  I guess I must come to terms with the fact that no one did such a thing in real life.

Since it is quite an awkward film to watch, it’s hard to recommend it to just anyone. It certainly is one that had me in some heavy post-viewing discussion with those around me and it took me some time to actually determine where I stand on the film. That definitely counts for something. “Compliance” stands as a gut-punch of an experience and probably one of the most aggravating and frustrating films I’ve seen yet this year.



RATING: ***1/2




One Comment leave one →
  1. Windi permalink
    September 3, 2012 10:51 am

    I read about this movie in a magazine somewhere, and immediately decided I did not want to see it. My reason for going to to movies is to escape reality to a certain point, not to be confronted so violently with what is wrong with it. It’s why I didn’t see Precious either, to name another movie off the top of my head. There’s a few others I made a point not to see. I can see why someone thought this story needed to be told, especially if it is based on a real life event (which is, I’m quite sure, why this movie is even more disturbing to many people). There are some VERY disturbing movies out there that are not based on real events, and people watch them without any of the same reactions. Interesting, I think.

    That said, I’ll take your word on how engrossing it is, and avoid it like the plague! 🙂

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