Monday, August 27, 2012


January 21, 2012 (Sundance Film Festival)
August 21, 2012 (United States)
90 min
United States (English)

Written and Directed by Craig Zobel

"Compliance" turns a mistaken identity scenario around in this true and troubling tale. While carefully constructed and executed, this peculiar thriller is bound to shake some heads.

I often wonder what types of thrillers Hitchcock would be making were he alive today. The nearly-singular location and mostly real-time dimensions of "Compliance" feel right up his sleeve of suspense. Ingenious concepts in memorable settings: That is a simple key to unlocking great storytelling on film. After establishing shots of a small town backdrop we get an insider's look at an employee huddle before the evening rush at ChickWich, your typical fast food joint. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) fails to inspire her much younger comrades.

A call comes in for Sandra from a police officer informering her that one of her employees stole from a customer's purse. Teenaged Becky (played by a bewildered Dreama Walker) runs one of the cashiers and fits the general description. Sandra is told to hold Becky in the back room and wait for the cops to arrive, the first of many instructions that Sandra and others reluctantly obey. As the voice on the other end explains the situation the requests start with a strip search and only increase in their questionability.

Removed from the incident as filmgoers in the comforts of our seats with popcorn in our hands (yeah, you may want to pass on bringing treats to this one) it is easy to label the characters on display as moronic. Writer/director Craig Zobel surely thought of this reaction as several characters comment how "stupid" (or with other words) it all is. The film is a statement on how we react to authority - similar to the Milgram experiment - and our willingness to comply with the orders given to us. "Compliance" is shocking and disturbing, but even more so when you realize this everything depicted actually occurred at a McDonald's in Kentucky. Zobel's script follows that incident nearly beat-for-beat. I also think of Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure" where obedience to superiors led to perverse treatment of prisoners and landed several soldiers in hot water.

Nearly every camera setup in "Compliance" is placed at medium shot length or closer creating a claustrophobic feeling not unlike being pinned under a magnifying glass. Is that meant for us or them? Probably both. Then there's the constant imagery of fast food as the slow-burn (deep fried) horror takes place nearby. The space outside the ChickWich is explored in uninterrupted takes, ultimately showing us how close a solution to the problem is. Then again, anyone could have resolved it by just saying, "No."

Despite the depravity at hand I felt impressive restraint on the filmmaker's part, though that still did not stop people from walking out midway at Sundance (where it sparked some controversy after its screening) and in subsequent venues. "Compliance" is an important film and intelligently crafted, its biggest hurdle is convincing us that this occurred in the depicted manner. Notwithstanding the ensemble of natural performances, it is hard as hell to believe.


CONTENT: some strong language, female nudity, and disturbing sexual content

Updated 2/8/13

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