A film review by Craig J. Koban September 24, 2012

RANK:  #20


2012, R, 90 mins.


Sandra: Ann Dowd / Becky: Dreama Walker / Officer Daniels: Pat Healy / Kevin: Philip Ettinger 

Directed and written by Craig Zobel

I never want to see COMPLIANCE again.  

That’s not because it’s an awful film, but rather because it’s an endlessly disturbing and depressing one that unnerved and chilled me to the bone.  That's a testament, I guess, to its level of technical craft.  When I left the screening of COMPLIANCE I breathed a sigh of relief, mostly because of the way it challenged me and made me ponder its almost unanswerable ethical conundrums.  Even days after seeing it I can’t decide if it’s a damning condemnation of the worst aspects of human stupidity or a shameful indictment of how grossly naďve people are so easily duped when they believe that they are speaking to people of higher authority.  Either way, COMPLIANCE is unspeakably hard to sit through, but I will most certainly never forget it. 

If I had to take a side, then I would probably lean more towards COMPLIANCE being an expose on the basic human propensity – when under great emotional duress – to fold like a deck of cards and comply with orders from people above us.  It further shows how a revoltingly misplaced faith in authority and law enforcement figures can unintentionally lead to horrific abuses of people.  Yet, there is no denying that characters in COMPLIANCE behave with unpardonable and profound foolishness, so much so that I literally want to throw things at the screen while watching it.  The fact that the film’s story is based on fact is very noteworthy; without that insight I would have never believed a majority of what transpires here, but the events portrayed actually did happen, which makes the film all the more sad. 

The factual events in question occurred in 2004 in a Kentucky McDonald’s restaurant; the establishment in the film is the fictitiously named "Chickenwich", which was obviously a legal decision on the film’s producers.  The restaurant’s head manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) has begun her day very badly: Firstly, a lazy employee left the freezer open and caused the spoiling of $15,000 worth of meat and then somebody forget to order extra pickles and bacon for the mad rush of customers that are set to come it during the business day.  Worse yet is that Sandra is overly anxious regarding a visit from her district manager on an impromptu inspection.  Her day has barely begun as she’s already a tightly wound cauldron of fidgety nervousness. 



Things get worse.  Sandra takes a call from a man that identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who tells her that one of her young and attractive staff members, Becky (Dreama Walker) has been caught red handed stealing money from a customer.  He also informs the befuddled Sandra that they have video proof of the theft, enough to book Becky and send her to jail.  However, the officer and the rest of his colleagues are tied up on another pressing criminal matter that may have links to Becky’s theft.  He politely asks Sandra to quietly get Becky, take her into a secluded back office area away from other customers and staff, and keep her there until he can arrive.  Sandra, already a woman under great pressure, dutifully complies. 

Why wouldn’t she?  The officer on the phone describes Becky in detail and knows her full name and, yes, he identifies himself as a cop and speaks with the usual cop lingo.  It initially seems to Sandra like a modest request to detain Becky in her office, but then the Officer Daniels informs her that he still can’t quite make it to Chickenwich yet.  He then asks Sandra to help his investigation by ordering Becky to empty her pockets to see if she has the money, to which she complies.  Sandra finds no money.  The officer then asks Sandra to check Becky's other personal belongings, which greatly upsets Becky even more (she steadfastly pleads her innocence).  Again, Sandra finds no money.  The officer further emphasizes the need to locate the money as part of a larger crime that Becky may have had a hand in, during which he informs Sandra that “still can’t come yet,” so he tells her that he has the company’s head honcho on the other line and that she has been instructed to…strip search Becky, which horrifies her to no end.  Shockingly, this is only the beginning of a series of horrendous indecencies that Becky is forced to endure while waiting for the officer to arrive on scene. 

COMPLIANCE was infamous on festival circuits for its many walkouts.  Some angered viewers accused the film’s director, Craig Zobel, of engaging in cheap psychological torture porn and debasing Ann Dowd into portraying Becky’s enduring all sorts of sexual abuse for the sake of sensationalistic titillation.   Further accusations levied against the film were that it easily showed lower and middle class working people as easily duped morons.  Although I can understand the latter sentiment from distressed viewers, the former regarding using sexual violence for the sake of crude entertainment is inaccurate.  Becky’s horrific humiliation and mental hell that she endures is anything but eroticized; it’s squirm inducingly terrifying.  Zobel also never objectifies Becky's nude façade; there is very little actual nudity in the film (which is kept to fleeting above-the-waist shots of Walker) and the director instead concentrates on the bewildered reactions on the faces of all involved.  Then tension in particular moments makes the film borderline unendurable at times. 

COMPLIANCE contains some of 2012’s most thanklessly credible and gutsy performances.  Ann Dowd - Oscar-worthy for sure - has to walk the delicate line of playing a seemingly noble minded and decent woman that also shows her inherent weakness with making some categorical blunders that a person with limited common sense would not make.  Dreama Walker, on the other had, is the bravest of the performers, who has to play a determined young woman certain of her innocence, yet a weak one that’s so easily deceived into doing everything – no matter how abhorrent  – that the officer on the phone instructs her to do.  Walker's work is a revelation here, complimenting the film’s powerful sense of horrifying sadness and gut-wrenching intensity. 

Of course, the officer is revealed to be a phony (Zobel perhaps telegraphs the real identity of this classless prankster a bit too early in the film to be effective) and his actions were duplicated over 70 times throughout the United States.  Yup...70 times.  COMPLIANCE contains a hastily cobbled together epilogue that frustratingly leaves viewers angrier and asking more futile questions about what transgressed for poor Becky.  Wisely, the film never goes out of its way to tell us what to think, trusting viewers to process what they have experienced and, in turn, allowing them to form their own judgments.  If anything, the film will provocatively spur heated discussions about the workplace, sexual harassment, sexual deviants and predators, and the weakest facets of human nature that indirectly allows evil to transpire without questioning it. 

It’s easy to label Sandra’s actions and handling of the nightmarish situation as nonsensically dimwitted, but Becky as the victim as well also allows herself to participate through ordeals that no woman would ever want to experience…all because they both believed they would be in trouble with the law if they didn’t comply.   In the end, I don’t think that Sandra and Becky are morons, but they behaved moronically, mostly because they were just severely scared and troubled individuals that deeply feared the police and the consequences of defying them.  COMPLIANCE, as a result, is not a tawdry or shameful exploitation picture.  Films like it that haunt your memories and force you to think about its themes rise well above those petty descriptors.

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