Review: Compliance (2012)



Craig Zobel
Craig Zobel
90 min.
Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, Nikiya Mathis, Ralph Rodriguez, Stephen Payne, Bill Camp, Amelia Fowler, James McCaffrey, Desmin Borges
MPAA Rating
R for language and sexual content/nudity

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How much freedom would you give up and how much would you take from another to comply with the orders of a policeman? Compliance digs into the chilling depths of societal dependence on obeying those in positions of power.

There are myriad questions on display in Craig Zobel’s stellar debut feature abuot a fast food manager (Ann Dowd) who conducts a series of degrading and illegal searches on a young employee (Dreama Walker) accused of stealing from a customer’s purse. As the authority figure (Pat Healy) on the other end of a private phone call convinces Sandra (Dowd) to adhere to his requests or face legal penalties, the assault on Becky’s (Walker) individual liberties becomes increasingly strained and bizarre, yet never arouses the level of suspicion it should have.

Dowd delivers a masterful performance as the charitable, friendly manager whose conflicted emotions about the situation are stamped out by her desire to adhere to society’s regimented authority structure. She willfully ignores the basic human rights of her own employee not questioning her approach until the situation is beyond her control. You feel outright horror at what she’s asked to do, the audience knowing the entire time that it’s nothing but a hoax, yet sympathize with her subtle descent into compliant accomplice. While the charcter’s culminating scenes ultimately tweak your perception of her, there’s never a question as to the tenacity and forthrightness of Dowd’s delivery.

It would be unfair to heap all of the praise on Dowd as she is supported ably by a number of lesser known actors each building a credible environment in which the film can take place. Walker’s utter embarrassment, fear and humiliation gives Becky an intensity that makes what happens to her all the more villainous. Healy as the creepy prankster doesn’t have to create much of a character since his actions are despicable enough, but his non-chalant attitude, careful consideration of the position he’s putting his targets into and disatsifaction with how things progress towards the end of the film serve to embellish his depravity. He creates a character that doesn’t have to physically assault someone to get pleasure out of their surrogate rape and mental torture.

Also meriting mention is Bill Camp who plays Sandra’s husband who comes in to watch the half-naked Becky while Sandra takes care of other business. His horror at the realisation of what his actions will do define the common sense perspective of how to respond in such a situation. Perhaps he lets himself go too far, but regret is instant and unabashed, levying a short bit of screentime as an exemplifaction of the film itself.

Were that this story a fictional account crafted for maximum discomfiture and disbelief, but it’s based on a series of cases that plagued the fast food industry almost a decade ago where a prankster convinced law-abiding citizens to obey his commands as an officer of the law or face criminal prosecution. That foundation in reality gives the film an eerie, haunting quality that dramatically alters the types of conversations that could be had afterwards.

These aren’t Grimm’s fairy tales, fictitious accounts designed to encourage children to behave. These are serious crimes that dehumanize and defame innocent people and call into question our society’s reliance on authority figures as individuals not to be countermanded.

Can we honestly say we would never permit ourselves to be taken like this or to allow the situation to progress this far? We would like to think not, but all indications at the beginning of the film suggest Sandra wouldn’t have either. This is a woman invested in trying to be friendly with her employees and not use her obvious power to control and demean them. If even she can be hoodwinked by this depraved charlatan, what hope do the rest of us have? Compliance lays out the framework by which we need to examine our interactions with others. Not just in how we interact with authority figures, but in how we deal with people in general.

While sexual assault is not a key factor in the film, what “Officer Daniels” encourages in his “subordinates” is tantamount to rape. If we can get past our need to exert our dominance over another person, we’ll go a long way towards improving our interactions with others and, in tandem, improve how society deals with people of different backgrounds and beliefs.
Review Written
September 26, 2013

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