Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy,
Running time: 90 minutes
Genre: thriller, crime drama
We’re at a ChickWich in Anywheresville, Ohio. There’s been a freezer accident that left thousands of dollars worth of stock ruined. There’s also the likelihood of a secret shopper visit and an employee who’s called in sick for Sandra to deal with. It’s going to be a busy day, and manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) needs everyone to be on their game.
Cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) jokes with assistant manager Marti about guys texting her, flirts a little with cook Kevin (Phillip Ettinger). Business as usual. Then Sandra takes a call from a man identifying himself as a police officer (Pat Healy). He’s spoken to her regional manager already and they need help from Sandra. One of the employees has stolen money from a customer’s purse. It couldn’t be Becky, Sandra tells him, aghast. The officer asks Sandra to fetch Becky.
Shocked, Becky denies the theft, but Sandra insists that they co-operate with the police, and the officer requests that Sandra detain Becky until another unit can come in. But then the officer asks for little more help, until the other officers arrive. He needs Becky strip searched. He needs her clothes and effects confiscated. He needs them to keep her locked in the back room. And he needs a man to guard her. Just until the other officers arrive, you see. And the situation escalates far past what most of us could imagine.
Compliance is a very rough film to watch but only because of the subject matter. Technically, it’s superb, even flawless. It’s stunning to look at even in its recreation of a fast food joint, down to the fluorescent lighting look. The styling and direction add to the claustrophobia and tension as everything just gets shittier and shittier. And the performances are pitch perfect; Dowd, Walker, and Healy in particular are absolutely convincing. Zobel handles the material so earnestly that it never comes off as exploitative. My only real complaints about it are that Healy is shown too soon–his reveal could have been more effective, while still maintaining the marvelously casual approach he takes, which is all the more chilling–and the epilogue, which turns the last few minutes into a police procedural that really adds nothing to the film.
Compliance was inspired by true events,which Wikipedia unwieldily refers to as “the strip search prank call scam.” I first read about it not too long after the events depicted here, and was totally astounded. Shocked. Sickened. Outraged. All pretty typical responses to the film, which had viewers walking out at screenings. Because after all, it’s unbelievable. Except that it happened. By some estimates, approximately seventy times.
Think about that. SEVENTY TIMES. Some of the cases were very nearly as bad as what happens in Compliance–which is terrible indeed. (This article has more details on other incidents.) Now think about that again. You can break down the Compliance audience into two very basic types: those who find themselves so shocked and appalled that they shout “I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE THIS” and “THIS IS STUPID” while watching, and then those who are similarly appalled, but use their imaginations to think about how and why it’s happening as they watch. (No judgement–for the record, my husband fell into the former camp, and I in the latter.) To be fair, I knew what was going on, and what had happened IRL, and perhaps that enhanced my experience. But it’s not wholly responsible; Zobel must be given credit for the way he subtly sets up his characters–so subtly, in fact, that it might not even consciously register.
From the opening scenes with Sandra, we know that she considers herself a nice person, too nice even, who has to work at not being undermined. Despite a perfunctory protest, she lets a delivery dude berate her, and though she’s trying to handle the situation, she not only fears but expects the same from her boss. It’s entirely reasonable for her both to give in to the police officer’s authority, but also that she’d take a small measure of authority he in turn lends to her throughout the proceedings. Later, we see the way she in turn reproaches Van, making him feel emasculated so that when offered authority, he will grasp it as well. Becky we see rolling her eyes at Sandra’s attempts to relate–but only behind her back. Though she’s naughty enough to take the first parking spot, she still shuts up and does what she’s told when working, and it’s that tendency that comes into play throughout her gradual degradation. Kevin seems like a typically douchey kid, until the moment he’s confronted with the opportunity to exploit Becky, and we watch the workings of his conscience play out over his face; what would most guys do when ordered by a police officer to strip search the naked girl they’ve got the hots for? What would you do if you were Becky? Sandra? Kevin? Van? How far would you go? Compliance is a very good film, and people should see it. But it’s not a movie you like.