Based on astonishing true events, COMPLIANCE is the story of Sandra (Ann Dowd), an overworked manager at a fast food restaurant, who receives a call from a police officer accusing one of her employees, a teenage girl named Becky (Dreama Walker), of stealing from a customer. Taking the officer at his word, Sandra detains Becky, setting into motion a nightmarish scenario that quickly spirals out of control.
Compliance starts on a regular Friday night at Chickwich, a fast food chicken sandwich restaurant. It's all business as usual until a man referring to himself as "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy from Ghost World) calls and asks to speak to the manager, Sandra (Garden State's Ann Dowd). Officer Daniels tells Sandra that one of her employees, a pretty young woman named Becky (Dreama Walker from Gran Torino) has been accused of stealing money from a customer's purse and needs to be detained until he can get there. While on the phone with him, Sandra takes Becky into a back office and Officer Daniels has Sandra put her through a seemingly never-ending battery of questions and searches that get progressively more invasive and demeaning. After hours of this, the workers at the restaurant start to wonder if Officer Daniels is a real law enforcement agent, a renegade cop, or just a crazy prank caller.
The premise behind Compliance is so absurd that it's a wonder that it ever gets out of the first act. The audience constantly wonders why Sandra doesn't just hang up on the caller. The truly frightening thing is that writer/director Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound) based his film on a very real case that happened in a Kentucky McDonalds, and it unfolded in real life pretty much the way it does onscreen. When the audience is armed with this knowledge, Compliance becomes less of a silly little game and more of a fascinating character study into how people behave when faced with the demands and requests of an authority figure, real or implied. One thing is for certain; once Compliance gets going, it's difficult to not look, like a car wreck or a soccer riot.
Compliance is a disturbing film on several levels. The degradation that Sandra and the other employees put Becky through is nothing short of revolting. Most of the abuse is not shown onscreen, which is more effective in many ways as the off-screen space invades the viewer's imagination, and what the audience imagines is just as bad (if not worse) than the actual acts of humiliation. The theme of the film is all in the title - it's about compliance, and the unquestioning way that normal people will follow orders, even if they are not sure of the source. Compliance is not an easy film to watch; it's more engaging than entertaining, but it is more than worth the price of admission, and it leaves a mark on the viewer's psyche that will stay with them for days.
The ensemble cast in Compliance is surprisingly good. Actually, the fact that they are good is not surprising, but the fact that they can stay consistent during the entire far-fetched ordeal is pretty remarkable. Ann Dowd is extremely successful as the insecure-yet-controlling manager Sandra who, in the face of orders from a "higher authority," has both her instincts and her loyalties tested. Pat Healy's Officer Daniels is suitably creepy, played in a manner that suggests that even his character can't believe that he's pulling off this plan. And Dreama Walker...her performance as Becky, the poor accused girl, makes her look like she may need therapy herself at the end of the film. The principal cast members all carry their weight so that the already effective film is given an even greater air of realism.
Compliance was shot by cinematographer Adam Stone (Take Shelter) and the photography is done mainly with handheld cameras and available light, giving it a documentary-like look that adds to the authenticity of the story. Much of it is done in almost a cinema veritÃ© style, with long, drawn out observational segments interrupted only by extreme close-ups to break the monotony. Spliced in between the voyeuristic camera work is a lot of interesting macro photography that captures all of the details and intricacies of the mundane and boring subject, whether it's a fast-food soda straw or a cash register readout screen. Stone's photography is inventive but never distracting, reinforcing the plot instead of attempting to create it. In a less engrossing film, the cinematography might steal the show; in Compliance, it's all part of the bigger picture.
August 17, 2012