Directed by: Craig Zobel.
Written by: Craig Zobel.
Starring: Ann Dowd (Sandra), Dreama Walker (Becky), Pat Healy (Officer Daniels), Bill Camp (Van), Philip Ettinger (Kevin), James McCaffrey (Detective Neals), Matt Servitto (Supplier), Ashlie Atkinson (Marti), Nikiya Mathis (Connie), Ralph Rodriguez (Julio), Stephen Payne (Harold), Amelia Fowler (Brie).
The movie almost takes place in real time, over one Friday evening at a “Chickwich” fast food joint in Ohio (in real life it was McDonald’s in Kentucky, but I bet they didn’t want to be sued, and there is no way McDonald’s would let them shoot in one of their locations). That evening the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from someone identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, who spends most of the movie as a disembodied voice on the phone). He tells her that one of her employees just stole money out of a customer’s purse – and his “surveillance” team who has been watching her as part of a larger operation can verify this. What he needs Sandra to do is bring the employee, a 19 year old blonde named Becky (Dream Walker) back to the office so they can talk. He first wants Sandra to check her pockets, then her purse. And finally, he wants Sandra to conduct a strip search of Becky. Officer Daniels tells her she has her regional manager on the other line, and that the police will show up shortly and take over, but this is a time sensitive matter, and they really need her help. Things escalate from there, especially when Officer Daniels asks Sandra to get a male to watch Becky until they get there as a security measure – not able to spare any more staff members, Sandra calls her boyfriend Van (Bill Camp), and soon the movie is going to a much darker place than we thought possible.
I think the smartest thing that Zobel does in Compliance is that he makes it Sandra’s story even more than Becky’s. It would have been easier for Zobel to make this movie about the wide eyed, innocent Becky who is tormented and tortured by a seemingly never ending parade of bad guys, but he does not do that. What Sandra does in the movie is awful, but it every decision she makes, Dowd makes seem real. The movie starts with a few small scenes that sketches out everything we need to know about Sandra is just a few minutes. Sandra is a woman who is undoubtedly a little disappointed with her life (who the hell wants to be Fast Food Manager when they grow up?), and her interactions with a delivery man inform us that Sandra doesn’t have any children of her own (and regrets this) and that she thinks she can handle more responsibility than she has been given. Her speech to her employees – mostly a group of apathetic teenagers – will ring true for anyone who has ever had a McJob before – or the manager, this is a career, and should be taken seriously – for everyone else, it’s just a way to make a few bucks. And finally, and most tellingly, watch her in a scene between her and Becky, and another employee, before the rush comes – how Sandra tries to compete with Becky’s talk of all her hot boyfriends, by telling them that she is sure Van is about to propose, and how she reacts when Becky dismisses this news with a patronizing “That’s cute”. There is a chilling moment when Sandra just looks at Becky from behind some shelves. Sandra, in short, doesn’t do what she does simply because she was duped by a “police officer” on the phone – she does it because she WANTS to be duped. She wants to think of herself as more important than she really is someone the police would actually call upon for help. And while outwardly, she seems so nice and sympathetic to Becky, underneath, she wants to punish her as well. Dowd, who has had a long career as one of those character actresses who shows up in everything, but you don’t really notice, delivers an Oscar caliber performance here – she suggests so much with her face – and lets the audience decide why she is doing what she’s doing. This is a complicated performance, because Sandra, while certainly not blameless, is not really a bad person either – just someone who believed what she was told all too willingly, because she wanted to believe.
This complexity extends to the other characters as well. Dreama Walker has a nearly impossible role to perform as Becky, but she does so brilliantly. The performance makes her go from a typical, thoughtless teenager, to confusion and outrage at being accused of something she didn’t do and then she gradually regresses – into a terrified young woman, so scared that she does things she had to logically know no police officer would ask her to do – she’s just too terrified to say no. Bill Camp is also excellent as Sandra’s boyfriend Van – a typical, sluggish, loser type who has “settled” for Sandra, but when he’s told what to do by Officer Daniels, he goes along with it – it’s a sick turn on for him, partly because Becky is the type of young, pretty girl he could never dream of getting. He knows the difference between right and wrong – but he goes ahead anyway. The role with the least complexity is Officer Daniels himself – although Pat Healy is great in the role as well. He is more one dimensional than the rest – a straight ahead pervert who is getting off on what he’s making everyone do, and the fantasies it inspires. At times, he seems to almost not believe that he has actually gotten them to do what they have.
Compliance is also brilliantly well made by Zobel – who gets the grimy atmosphere of a fast food joint precisely right – and juxtaposes images of people going about their jobs, or having their meals, against the horror that is happening right in the next room. Zobel, making only his second feature, has made a remarkably claustrophobic movie – seeing the film in the theater is the right way to see it, that way, just like the characters, you are trapped in a small room, and stuck dealing with the uncomfortable reality on the screen.
Compliance has already become perhaps the year’s most controversial movie – and was right from its first screening at Sundance, where some audience members booed and heckled the film and the filmmakers, and some booed and heckled the booers and hecklers. In the screening I was in, a 60 year old couple sitting behind me came in, and after about 45 minutes, through which there was occasional, audible gripping from the husband, he got up and informed his wife that the movie was disgusting and he was leaving – only to reappear five minutes later, apparently shocked that his wife didn’t follow him out, and told her that he wasn’t waiting around for her, he was going home to which she responded “Good. Go home” and he stormed out. I can only imagine what conversation they had when she got home later – but it will undoubtedly echo the conversations of a lot of people who see Compliance. Compliance is not an easy movie to sit through – and it shouldn’t be – and is one that I think it’s impossible to be indifferent about. It strikes an uneasy chord in the audience, who would like to sit there and feel superior to the characters on screen – would like to think that they would be smart enough to see through the ruse, and refuse to go along with it – whether they were in Sandra’s or Becky’s or even Van’s situation. But the reality is much more troubling, and I think audiences sense that. The movie’s story is not unlike the infamous Milgram experiment, where a study discovered that 65% of people tested would send an electric shock powerful enough to kill, through an unseen person as long as they were assured it was all part of an experiment – and they wouldn’t be blamed for anything. Milgram conducted his experiment just months after the trial of Nazi War Criminal Adolf Eichman in because he wanted to know just how easy it was for an authority figure to get someone to go against their own sense of morality – and apparently, it is remarkably easy.
Compliance is a movie that wants to press the audiences buttons – wants them to respond to it, even if that response is disgust, like that old man sitting behind me or those hecklers at Sundance. And push those buttons the movie does. You may love Compliance, you may hate it – but you certainly won’t forget it.