USA , 2012
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 24 August 2012
Source 35MM Print
The line between art and exploitation is often blurry and frequently worth discussing. What is the difference between depicting depravity and reveling in it? When does evil stop being a film’s subject and start seeping into its substance? These questions hover over some of our most gnarly cinematic classics, including David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (as well as a great many not-very-good pictures of varying genres and artistic aspirations), and they are bound to haunt writer-director Craig Zobel’s deeply unsettling new film Compliance, which offers a thinly fictionalized dramatization of a series of crimes that unfolded at a McDonald’s in Kentucky several years ago.
Zobel’s film stars the excellent Ann Dowd as Sandra, a supervisor at a fast food chain called “Chickwich” who succumbs – with chilling ease – to a psychologically manipulative phone call alleging that one of her employees committed a theft. The caller, who speaks mostly in calm, even tones, impersonates a police officer and couches a series of vile commands in authoritative language laced with threats of legal reprisal for disobedience. Thus deceived, Sandra unquestioningly subjects her teenage employee Becky to a humiliating strip search, and the situation only continues to escalate. Meanwhile, Sandra’s employees are disturbed by their boss’s actions but do little to stop her.
Compliance’s fact-based storyline of course recalls a number of famous psychological studies regarding authority and obedience, including the Milgram Experiment, which was itself inspired by the trials of Nazi war criminals who claimed that they were just following orders when they committed atrocities. No wonder, then, that Zobel’s film makes for such uneasy viewing. In its own microcosmic way, it begs serious questions about how willing people can be to harm one another in the interest of their own self-preservation, particularly if a perceived authority figure stands to shoulder the blame. The film is an intentionally frustrating watch – one longs to shout at these characters and somehow get them to take even a half-step back to reconsider their actions – but its aims feel worthy. It asks viewers to take a tough view of themselves and maybe even consider the times that they cowed to authority—and shouldn’t have.
Yet as I implied earlier, some might question whether Compliance’s examination of power and abuse is genuinely fueled by philosophical questions, or merely a prurient interest in seeing a very sordid news story recreated on the big screen. These questions troubled me too, but I have reason to argue that the film’s nobler side wins out. It’s worth noting that given its subject matter, the film is not especially graphic; more often than not it implies the physical violations made against Becky rather than staging the scenes more explicitly. The emphasis here is placed on the choices that the characters make, and the conditions that may lead them to do so, rather than on serving up vivid depictions of the crimes that they commit.
Furthermore, Zobel does take time to focus on the fallout of the events and is frank about the severity of the crimes, inviting us to consider how the characters’ lives have been altered by what happened, as well as what their story means for the rest of us. Characterizing Becky in greater detail might have been an effective choice in some ways, but Dreama Walker nevertheless does fine work in her demanding role. And one can understand why Zobel is most interested in inviting the audience to identify with Sandra, the ordinary manager who so disturbingly fails to question her orders. Indeed: if Compliance is a horror film (and to me it surely is), it’s Sandra’s humanity that makes the story so chilling.
The caller himself – played with pitch-perfect banality by Pat Healy – is a skilled manipulator but no criminal mastermind, and while clearly perverse, he too is recognizably human. He periodically fumbles on the phone, and we get a glimpse of his ordinary-looking household. (His day job is one of Zobel’s biggest fictional flourishes, and also a pretty great reveal.) When it comes to Sandra, and the caller, and the other characters who become involved in torturing Becky, Zobel succeeds in showing us how cruelty and brutality can become part of the fabric of the everyday.
Compliance isn’t remotely subtle, but its messaging is powerful. To wit: when the real police in the film finally arrive at the fast food restaurant and take charge, one can’t help but feel relieved. But there’s another feeling too, one of discomfort. A nagging voice asks why, after all of this, it can still be so easy to put faith in an authority that we perceive as legitimate.