Published on April 12th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Summary: 'Compliance' is a well-acted but preachy and manipulative indie exploitation shocker. It carries the message of an after school special with the ugliness of a torture porn. Its characters are written as spineless shills for the unseen "man."
R | 90 min.
Director: Craig Zobel | Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Studio: Dogfish Pictures | Distribution: Magnolia Pictures
Compliance may be the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. You’d find it in the ‘Drama’ section on Netflix and on this website, but it’s got more right to be labelled ‘Horror.’ Writer & director Craig Zobel co-created the popular early-2000’s web cartoon Homestar Runner, which I found torturous to watch in high school, so it makes sense he would come up with a squirm-inducing film like this.
The plot is simple enough. Take the worst day you’ve ever had at work and multiply it by the number of times you scream obscenities at the screen during this movie, and that’s it!
Compliance tries to create tension from the start, following Sandra (Ann Dowd), the 50-something manager of a fast-food restaurant named ChickWich. Sandra is under the gun due to an impending visit from an inspector and the fact that some employee left the freezer open the night before, causing $1,500 worth of bacon to go bad(!). She gets a phone call from a man identifying himself as “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy), informing her that an employee has stolen money from a customer and she will need to control the situation until police arrive to investigate. The employee in question is a teenage girl named Becky (Dreama Walker), who has never been in trouble at work and tells Sandra she’s innocent.
… I wish this was where Sandra had said, “Okay, I believe you, let’s go make some more chicken sandwiches,” but the fun is just beginning.
What follows are 90 excruciating and frustrating minutes of human denigration. Officer Daniels orders Sandra and other law-abiding citizens to interrogate Becky in various ways until the police show up. These acts include strip searching Becky, making her perform naked jumping jacks (to “shake the money loose”), spanking her, and sexually assaulting her — all because the nice policeman says so. Of course, we find out 30 minutes in that “Officer Daniels” is really just some creepy, middle-aged dad who’s calling on a burner phone and seeing if they’ll really go along for this sick ride.
It might be the most deplorable game of “Simon Says” ever played.
Compliance is a sick exercise in human control that begs its audience to wonder who is the antagonist. Becky can be seen as a living metaphor for any average Joe who’s being taken advantage of by “higher” forces (elected officials, a company executive, racism, religion, etc…). However, it’s not the phantom Officer Daniels who’s actually doing anything to her — rather it’s the people she personally knows who are blindly following orders despite what their moral compass may tell them. They are a team of frightened, spineless “law abiding citizens” who will bow to anyone that claims to have authority.
The movie’s central theme is a commentary on how normal people react when put under pressure; and according to this, they would rather bury their head and go along than stand up for someone else’s rights.
Zobel’s film is as manipulative as anything I’ve seen since Funny Games, but makes that movie look like a Disney release! I wanted to like Compliance and praise it for being gritty and unafraid to make us look at a dark truth of human nature, but instead I felt these characters were given zero credit by the film’s screenplay. The problem is we get a lot more dialogue explaining Sandra’s motivation for putting Becky through this disgusting ringer than we do explaining the latter’s reasons for (literally) bending over and simply taking the abuse.
There’s a single line of dialogue early on where Becky says, “I really have to have a job right now,” but if that’s as far as Zobel’s willing to go. It simply comes off as lazy writing because it’s almost impossible to believe any person would go along with this degradation.
In terms of performances, Compliance’s small cast is believable but the players are frigid and distant. Dreama Walker is who the audience sympathizes with, but this is Ann Dowd’s movie all the way. Dowd hits every note perfectly on the way to making you detest her. Her character is such a small person and seems to get off on the meager compliments from Officer Daniels regarding her ability to follow orders; while visibly crumbling when he insults her. Dowd also drops the most memorable quote of Compliance, while perfectly representing the film’s title, telling Becky, “It’s not up to me.”
If you’re like me and get angry when characters are written as irredeemable morons, you might be so frustrated by Compliance that you’ll be tempted to turn the movie off.
Compliance is the definition of hard to watch, but not in a way that expresses legitimate human suffering like director Steve McQueen’s brilliant 2011 movie Shame. Instead, this film sets out with an agenda which follows it to the edge of believability — then over a cliff. Zobel ends up coming off like Officer Daniels, forcing the audience to take this awful ride.