Compliance (United States, 2012)

August 16, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Compliance Poster

Most of the time, I am irritated when a movie proclaims to be "based on a true story." In many cases, it's a gratuitous marketing ploy. For Compliance, however, it's useful information. Unlike many "based on true stories," this one closely follows the established record. More importantly, without such a disclaimer, the viewer would be inclined toward eye-rolling. The truth can indeed be stranger than fiction and, in this case, were the story to have originated in the imagination of the screenwriter, it could rightfully be criticized as artificial and contrived. But, disturbing and unlikely as it may be, this stuff actually happened, and pretty much as Craig Zobel relates it.

The real-life events occurred in 2004 in Mount Washington, Kentucky. The names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent). No date is offered for Compliance, but the location in somewhere in Ohio. The restaurant in which events transpire is the fictitious Chickenwich (standing in for McDonald's, presumably to avoid legal action). Other than that, the story unfolds like a docudrama. In fact, if you peruse the Wikipedia entry for the incident, it reads like an outline of the script. What Compliance provides that factual accounts ignore is the "human element." It explores the gray line between victim and perpetrator. (There is only one "pure victim" and one "pure criminal" in the story.) It also explains how people could allow things to go this far and get so out-of-hand.

It's Friday at a fast food joint and a big weekend crowd is expected. The place's manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is already frazzled when she takes a call from a man identifying himself as "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy). Does Sandra have an attractive blond working for her? Yes, that would be Becky (Dreama Walker). There's a problem, explains Officer Daniels: Becky has been accused of stealing money from a customer's purse. Could Sandra call Becky into her office? The money has to be found, and there may be more to this than a case of simple theft.

Following Officer Daniels' instructions, Sandra reluctantly asks Becky to empty her pockets. Becky, frightened and flabbergasted, goes along with this, hoping to avoid being arrested by the police, who have not yet arrived but "will be there soon." When no money is found, Sandra empties Becky's pocketbook. Still nothing. Then, under orders from Officer Daniels, Sandra strip-searches Becky. And that's only the beginning of a series of incidents that become increasingly humiliating and degrading for the innocent 20-ish young woman and perplexing for the other workers at Chickenwich, none of whom are willing to intervene.

Compliance is a condemnation of human nature. It illustrates how people, once relieved of responsibility, will commit acts they would not otherwise engage in. When asked why she did what she did, Sandra answers, "Because I was told to." That sounds a lot like the common response of "I was just following orders" given by Gestapo officers when asked about gassing Jews during World War II. The acts perpetrated upon Becky are not done by evil people. They may not be the most sophisticated, intelligent examples of the species, but they are not predators. Nevertheless, the things they do are horrific.

Officer Daniels is doing this for unspecified reasons. Perhaps he considers this to be a kind of sociological experiment - see how far he can push people before they push back. He may be surprised at how far things go, although he certainly is not dismayed. He has done this before, possibly as many as 70 times over ten years, without being caught. There doesn't appear to be a sexual element to his motivation; there's no indication of arousal. Instead, his activities are matter-of-fact. He makes a sandwich, wanders around the house and yard, smokes cigarettes, and takes notes. It's almost as if he's doing research for a doctoral dissertation.

The style is stark and simple. There's nothing fancy about the camerawork. It's straightforward, with a feel that is at times documentary-like. (Although at no time does Compliance position itself as a faux documentary - it's clearly a feature film from the start, albeit a low-budget one.) Music is used sparingly to avoid undermining the careful reality established by Zobel.

Compliance is uncomfortable but compelling. Zobel is careful about how he shoots to avoid the charge of exploitation. There is nudity, but it extends no further than toplessness for Dreama Walker. The character is completely naked but the camera affords a degree of privacy. Walker's portrayal is strong; we feel Becky's vulnerability and fear. We intellectually recognize that she should remove herself from the situation but sense her terror and confusion. Like Sandra, she never doubts Officer Daniels' legitimacy. Ann Dowd's performance is Oscar-worthy. Through her expressions, we are privy to all the doubts arising within Sandra's conscience and the rationalizations she employs to quell them. She acts out of stupidity and gullibility but her willingness to deny responsibility allows her to play a part, however reluctantly, in things that are morally abhorrent.

Most of Compliance unfolds in the restaurant, although there is a 10-minute epilogue that details the police investigation into the case and provides updates on the characters' lives after the events. The movie is a stark reminder of how easily people cede responsibility to those who claim authority and how easily one can be victimized in such situations. When I first read about this case eight years ago, I remember wondering how someone could allow herself to be placed in this position. Compliance answers that question in a way that is powerful and unspeakably sad. It's not an easy movie to watch but it will stay with you long after the images have faded from the screen.

Compliance (United States, 2012)

Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger
Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Cinematography: Adam Stone
Music: Heather McIntosh
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2012-08-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1