Posted on 9/04/12 05:57 PM
"Compliance" is a genuinely powerful, chilling film about the consequences of following authority blindly, all the more difficult to watch because the story is plucked from reality. If it weren‚(TM)t crafted so well, the film would likely be unwatchable, but because writer/director Craig Zobel handles the material with such serious restraint and skill, and the performances are so strong and sincere, ‚Compliance‚? never comes across as trashy voyeurism.
The setting is a fast food chicken restaurant. The manager, a middle-aged woman named Sandra (Ann Dowd), informs her employees of an inventory shortage of pickles and bacon. Then, she tells them a secret shopper will be in sometime during the day, so they must all be in top form.
Right away, even before the phone rings, there is a palpable layer of tension in the film. Sandra is stressed about the inventory shortage, caused by a freezer that was left open the previous night, and about the secret shopper who will be evaluating the quality of food and service. She already shares a slightly abrasive relationship with a few of her employees, particularly Becky (Dreama Walker), a young blonde girl who works at the front.
And then the phone rings.
When Sandra answers, the man on the other end of the phone introduces himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He tells Sandra one of her employees has been accused of stealing money from a customer‚(TM)s purse. The victim, he says, is at the station and identified the employee as a young blonde girl ‚" he describes Becky exactly. Sandra proceeds to take Becky in the back employee room to question her at the officer‚(TM)s command.
From there, the film becomes a downward spiral into the dark depths of human obedience, as the man on the phone orders Sandra and other employees to do increasingly cruel and humiliating things to Becky, who sits naked in the back room for most of the film, barely covered by an apron. The man manages to convince nearly everyone of his authority, and establishes early on that Becky only has two options: She can either be taken downtown and jailed overnight, or strip-searched at the restaurant. He recommends the second option as the quicker, easier choice, and Becky agrees.
Zobel is a gifted filmmaker, and scene after scene in ‚Compliance,‚? he masterfully examines the power of suggestion, and our desire to obey authority, and to do the right thing, whatever that may seem to be. This is a scary idea, as most people try to live their lives day to day while making the right decisions and following the rules. So when audience members choose to stand up and walk out on this film, as they did at several premiere showings in New York and L.A., it signifies just how challenging the ideas and images presented in the film are, especially because Zobel presents them in a stark, realistic manner so as not to sensationalize true events.
Ann Dowd plays Sandra the manager in a deeply sad, frustrating and sincere performance, an award-caliber performance. From her first scene on, Dowd establishes Sandra as a good person struggling with insecurity and a need to control and maintain the restaurant service and to please the man who calls himself an officer of the law. She also has a boyfriend, Van (Bill Camp), whom she soon hopes will propose marriage.
There is a heartbreaking, cringe-inducing scene where Sandra overhears Becky talking with another employee about her many boyfriends. Sandra urgently jumps into the conversation, overcompensating for herself and revealing a hint of jealousy for Becky‚(TM)s youth and sexual activeness. Dowd makes us ache for her in these scenes, but when the tables turn and we feel resentment for her compliancy, it does not feel manipulative. The sudden reversal comes eerily natural to the story.
These moments early in the film weave a layer of everyday, human anxiety into the story, and are heightened as it moves along. The tension between these characters even comes into the foreground when the officer tells Sandra to call in Van to supervise Becky while she goes back to help work the front counter ‚" it is a busy night, so Becky and Van are left alone for a stretch of time, during which the more disturbing and tragic events happen.
I would like to think I would never (in a million years) behave as these people in the film do, following the man‚(TM)s orders over the phone despite lacking any actual proof he is a police officer. But a blood-curdling statistic at the end of the film reveals there have been 70 similar instances that have occurred in 30 different states. In ‚Compliance,‚? every second leading up to the phone call, and every nuance leads me to question myself, even as I question the actions of Sandra and everyone else. What would I do?
What would you do?