Movie Review: Compliance (2012, Dir. Craig Zobel)

Compliance is a film that dares you to walk out on it, and a few people in the theater in which I saw the film were not up for the challenge. A lot of this hinges on the films conceit. It’s a story beyond believability: a prank phone call is placed to a fast food chicken restaurant. The man identifies himself as a police officer. The caller then asks to speak to the manager and proceeds to explain that the pretty young blonde girl working the counter stole money from a customer. He asks the manager to hold her in the backroom until he arrives. He then asks the manager to search her belongings. Then to strip search the girl. Things only get worse from there. Unbelievable right? Who would do whatever a person on the other end of a phone said just because they claim to be a cop? But Compliance is based on a true story. This happened to a girl at a McDonalds in Kentucky. And the new film directed by Craig Zobel is filmed with a documentary matter of fact-ness, telling this story. This is every uncomfortable and excruciating detail that happened to this girl brilliantly recreated, forcing you to watch.

The reason my fellow theater goers walked out is the exact same reason why I was glued to my chair, the sheer frustration is brutal. You spend nearly every second of the film screaming “No no no!” in your head. Who will stop this unlawful search? Why can’t the manager, Sandra (brilliantly played by character actress Ann Dowd,) see she is being played? Won’t any other employees come to Becky’s aide? But where others can’t buy into the premise, I took it hook, line, and sinker. I can totally understand how a person in real life would fall for this. Especially stressed out fast food managers on a busy Friday night.

Compliance does a wonderful job of immediately placing us in Sandra’s headspace. The product has been ruined; the store is out of bacon. Corporate is sending a secret shopper. The film even hints a subtle jealousy of the young attractive Becky. Why wouldn’t she try and take care of this “police” problem as quickly as possible? Why wouldn’t she listen to the man on the phone who speaks with such certainty and authority?

At this point it plays less as a movie, and often more like a psychological experiment. How do we handle authority? We are told to listen to what a police officer tells us. To listen to what your boss tells you. This is why no other employee intervenes. They listen to Sandra, for she is, after all, the manager of a fast food chicken place. She has the authority over them. And the caller on the line speaks to that idea within her. He plays up just how important a person she is in this operation. Listen closely to the dialogue. When Sandra speaks to the other employees, she doesn’t get all the “facts” straight. She changes things a little like a game of telephone. The script smartly knows how a person under pressure would relay this information. Even if it weren’t a true story, I believe the performances and writing would have sold me on it.

Becky is played fearlessly by Dreama Walker of the television series Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23. This film asks a lot of her. She is exposed both figuratively and literally. She is dehumanized. As you watch the humiliations occur, you can sit smugly in the audience knowing that you are better than these people. That this would never happen to you. You could never be tricked in the manner these fast food workers were. I guess the biggest question the film ends up asking is…

Are you sure about that?

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