Thursday, September 20, 2012


Compliance is a troubling, true-crime drama set at a fast food joint.  No, it's not about a drive-thru robbery.  Instead, director Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound) has a far more insidious tale to tell, one that confronts blind adherence to authority while asking the audience to endure to some fairly icky developments.  He's crafted a complex cocktail that raises far more questions than it ever intends on answering and doesn't shy away from interrogating the audience's response to the nightmare it presents.

Zobel opens the picture with a convincingly mundane depiction of life in a fast food restaurant.  Most of the workers there are, predictably, teenagers.  It's plain to see how the much older manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), wearily deals with the daily disappointment of still working around fried chicken, barely masking her condescending tone as she leads her crew through a morning meeting.  What seems like an average morning shifts abruptly when the phone rings in Sandra's office. 

The voice on the other line identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).  He claims that one of Sandra's employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen cash out of a customer's purse.  Daniels says the theft has been confirmed because Becky is already under observation for "an unrelated investigation."  Since all police personnel is currently tied up with that other investigation, Officer Daniels tells Sandra that she'll need to detain Becky in her office until someone for the department can make it down; which is all fine and good, if somewhat questionable, until the voice on the other line asks Sandra to strip search their suspect.

The request destabilizes our understanding of what's going on here.  It's like the film is letting us in on a dirty secret and the impact of that revelation ripples throughout the remainder of the film.  What follows is a test of Sandra, the other employees at the restaurant, and the audience itself.  Each time the instructions of Officer Daniels are followed, another more invasive command is issued and the tension grows.  And we're left to watch as it all unfolds.

This is not a feel-good film.  There were moments when I wondered if I'd accidentally stumbled into a torture porn film, such is the level of degradation on offer.  Compliance rises above the pointless sadism of that horror subgenre by actually having and coherently delivering a well-organized interrogation of how culpable we are in the structure of evil, refuting the notion that such phenomena ever springs from a single individual.  Let's just say that I don't think it's a mistake that Zobel has cast a chicken restaurant as the setting (the incident it's based on happened at a McDonalds).

Bottom line: this movie will be rattling around in your head for weeks after viewing, so powerful are its themes, accusations, and the level of filmmaking on display.

Highly recommended.

Compliance begins its run at Cinema 21 on Friday, September 21st.  More info available here.

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