Matt Messbarger 01/03/2014
I’m all for being provoked by a film if I think there is a good reason. I’ve steered clear – right or wrong – of legendarily sadistic fare such as Salo, Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s work, to name a few, because whatever important things about modern society they think they’re getting at, I just don’t like watching people horrifically degrade one another for two hours at a time. I don’t really think it’s a necessary punishment we need to go through when we go to the movies in order to learn about life or art. It’s just not something I can easily stomach. Maybe that makes me a dubious critical voice here but I think there’s a fallacious connection between onscreen depravity and important, serious cinema. It’s a weird kind of pretension that suggests that the movie-as-endurance test is the most serious kind of cinematic art. I think that’s dumb. But hey, that’s just me.
That said, Compliance, Craig Zobel’s true crime tale of a sinister phone prank played on a fast food manager in Kentucky, had its fair share of walkouts. A lot of people got angry at this film and were disgusted by what they saw onscreen and exasperated by the idiotic decisions made by the principle characters, but I didn’t mind because the film is an excellent and very timely morality tale. It’s a morality tale in that it’s a story with an actual moral seriousness running through it - something that I don’t think you can say of similarly provocative films of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it depicts a world so familiar to some of us – a fast food restaurant off the highway in rural America where employees are made to feel entirely dispensable and where there is always some omnipotent higher level of authority in charge but never present. That the employees never question the horrific things they are asked to do by a sociopathic prank phone caller is telling because, as service industry workers, they are made to feel so passive to the authority and control of the corporation that owns the franchise that it tragically never occurs to them to say no.
Sandra (played by Ann Dowd), the manager of a fast food restaurant based on McDonalds, is facing a weekend with a pickle and bacon shortage. This is going to get her in trouble from the higher ups, she fears, so she’s already exasperated by the time she gets a call from someone claiming to be a local detective. He describes a woman who works for her who is accused of stealing. The description of the perpetrator is so generic that sooner or later the caller was bound to find someone who matched it and a manager gullible enough to do what he said. Sandra is ordered to take her employee, Becky, (Dreama Walker) to the backroom and strip search her, and what follows is a series of increasingly humiliating violations of Becky’s dignity leading to eventual sexual assault. We watch the plot unfold like a sinister psychological experiment played out in lockstep to its awful conclusion.
Sandra is masterfully manipulated by the caller: alternately flattered and intimidated into carrying out the caller’s instructions and it is so disgusting that she sees herself ultimately as a victim by the end. Becky is a kid who thinks that what she is being put through is ridiculous but it’s obvious that she thinks she has to do what she is told because she is young and works in fast food and could be easily fired. The subtext of how we respond to authority, to people with power over us, is incredibly disturbing as depicted by this film.
I’m not saying Compliance is for everyone and I’m sure that there are other films as hard to watch that are as important as this one but Compliance touched a nerve with me. We’re living through a time where the biggest story is the hollowing out of the middle class in this country and the growth of food service and retail jobs – notorious for their poverty wages and lack of benefits. Compliance is a morality tale inextricably linked to the service economy. It’s, in every way, a movie for our times.
Inspired by true events, Compliance tells the chilling story of just how far one might go to obey a figure of authority. On a particularly busy day at a suburban Ohio fast food joint, high-strung manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, Garden State) receives a phone call from a police officer saying that an employee, a pretty young blonde named Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Convinced she's only doing what's right, Sandra commences the investigation, following step-by-step instructions from the officer at the other end of the line, no matter how invasive they become.
- Starring: Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Pat Healy
- Format: Color, Dolby, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Number of Discs: 1
- Rating: R
- Label: Magnolia Home Entertainment
- Release Date: 01/08/2013
- Run Time: 90 minutes
- Catalogue #: 10517
- Behind The Scenes
- Interview With Director Craig Zobel
- AXS TV: A Look At Compliance