Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, James McCaffrey
MPAA Rating: (for language and sexual content/nudity)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 8/17/12 (limited); 8/31/12 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 30, 2012
Even after reading about the case that inspired Compliance and learning the end result (That the film does not mention those results in its coda is, perhaps, a minor kindness given everything that comes before it), it still seems impossible to believe that this happened, and the film covers only one incident out of 72 that were reported. For once, the title card "Based on true events" is not some cheap gimmick to lend a story importance; it is a despondent cry of shock, disbelief, and, above all, outrage.
The film involves excessive and prolonged invasions of a young woman's privacy, and once it begins, there is the air of inevitability, unstoppable and tragic—mostly because it could have been avoided so easily. "I just knew it was going to happen," the woman responds—after the horrific ordeal is finished—when asked why she didn't simply say, "No." It's a devastating line because it's a sentiment we often hear in crimes similar to the one that results from this scenario. In some small way, we have a similar feeling throughout Compliance. Even if one isn't familiar with the real-world events, one cannot help but presume where this is heading.
Set in a fast food restaurant in a nonspecific small town, the film follows Sandra (Ann Dowd, in a challenging role, performed with complete clarity), the eatery's manager. Her busy Friday shift starts with bad news: Someone left the freezer open, and a lot of food has spoiled. She's hesitant to report this to her own boss. Her shift manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) thinks Sandra should, but it's clear she's afraid of being reprimanded.
It might seem a small detail, but the incident with the freezer and Sandra's reaction to it give us some idea of the manager's character. She doesn't want to upset her superior, and she appears to hold a grudge against those who work for her because of it. Most of the employees think Kevin (Philip Ettinger) is responsible, but for some reason, Sandra has her eye on 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker).
After overhearing some of Marti and Becky's gossip about the men in Becky's life, Sandra immediately tries to insert herself in the conversation, saying she and her boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) have an exciting relationship, too. She even fudges the facts, calling him her fiancé, even though he hasn't yet proposed. Sandra wants to be important in people's eyes. Becky laughs at this after her manager walks away; Sandra notices.
Again, these seem like unimportant points, but throughout the ensuing events, Sandra insists that her actions have nothing to do with her opinion of Becky. This is clearly dishonest; whether she wants to admit it or not, Sandra holds a grudge against this young woman, whom she suspects ruined her day with the freezer and whom she knows mocked her relationship. It's no surprise, then, that, when a man calls the restaurant and says he's a police officer, Sandra wants to cooperate in any way she can.
The man says he has a woman with him who claims an employee stole money from her purse. He gives a description of the worker, and Sandra offers Becky's name. The man asks her to bring Becky into the back office so that he can begin his investigation.
The psychology of what follows has been documented before, most famously in the Milgram experiment. In that test, a subject was to give an electric shock of increasing intensity to another participant whenever that party gave an incorrect answer. There was, of course, no actual shock being administered, but the sounds coming from the room where the punished party was located suggested otherwise. Whenever the subject wanted to stop the experiment (Even the eager Sandra has her doubts about the actions the man requests, struggling to get the words out and hiding her eyes in shame from Becky), an authority figure would tell them to continue, assuring the subject that whatever might happen was not their responsibility. A majority of people completed the test.
The man on the other end of the phone in the film (played with haunting blankness by Pat Healy) knows exactly what he is doing. His requests start off relatively harmless: He wants Sandra to check Becky's pockets (insisting she take her cell phone), and then her purse. They grow more invasive, until Becky is standing naked before Sandra, who is so caught up in the way she believes things should be done that she actually imagines there is a corporate policy for strip searches. Others come into the room, but no one wants to point out the obvious: This is wrong.
Writer/director Craig Zobel creates an ever-shrinking feeling of claustrophobia, using the limited space provided by the office to suggest a prison, which only heightens our own sense of helplessness watching this insanity unfold. Needless to say, the man on the phone is not what he seems (A moment when one character realizes it but decides to continue anyway is chilling), but even so, Sandra's predisposition to blindly follow this man's instructions—even when she's under the impression that he is conducting a legitimate investigation of Becky—is maddening (Note the way he withholds information from some while playing to weaknesses of others, like his tendency to constantly compliment Sandra; Zobel's screenplay is remarkably crafted in this regard).
Zobel's approach is as respectful as possible given the material, and the matter-of-fact documentation of events avoids exploiting them. Compliance is an infuriating film—at times difficult to endure—but it is a necessary story to tell.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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