[Review] – Compliance

10 Sep

Title: Compliance
Year: 2012
Director: Craig Zobel
Writer: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
MPAA Rating: R, language and sexual content/nudity
Runtime: 90 min
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Metacritic: 70

I had heard some really good things about Craig Zobel‘s Compliance back when it premiered last month, but for some reason I just couldn’t see myself loving it as much as so many others had. And yet I did love it, I think it stands as one of the best films of the year so far, and I think Mr. Zobel really establishes himself as a director to seriously watch out for. The performances are also a big part of why this film’s so good, particularly the one delivered by Ann Dowd, and they make Compliance a seriously gripping thriller, a disturbing portrayal of something that actually happened in real life.

The events this film is based on are the strip search prank call that took place a few years ago, more specifically on the more known of those cases, the one that took place in Mount Washington, Kentucky. On April, 2004 an assistant manager at a McDonald’s there received a call from a man that said to be a police detective and that gave her the description of a woman they were after under the suspicion of theft. The assistant manager was aware of an employee that fit the description and, under the caller’s instruction after saying there were no offices in the police department available, brought her into an office at the restaurant, got her to remove her clothes and wait there.

After a while the assistant manager had to leave and the caller told her to bring in someone she could trust, so she brought her fiancé, who was told there was a policeman on the line and, as such, followed every order given to him for the next two hours. Those order included to force her to do jumping jacks and dance around naked, to insert her fingers into her vagina as part of a “cavity search”, to sit on his lap and kiss him and to perform oral sex to him. The fiancé never once rebuffed the caller, he just complied, and the employee, fearing for her life, did as she was told too, and was spanked whenever she didn’t.

That actually happened several times, that’s just the best-known case of it because it was brought to public attention. Compliance, the perfect name for a movie about it, uses it as its base, with Ann Dowd playing Sandra, the manager of a fast-food restaurant, and Dreama Walker playing Becky, the innocent victim the supposed officer calling gets Sandra to question. The film pretty much follows to the tee the real-life event I just recounted above, but even if you knew about the case before going into the film you’ll still be seriously shaken by this film, and understand why it was met with controversy when it screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

It’s one of those things that would be impossibly to fathom happening in a movie if it weren’t for the fact that they somehow happened in real life, and the film knows that, and that’s why you as an audience will be pretty damn enraged with what’s going on most of the time, wanting to just shout back at the screen. It’s the kind of movie that makes you squirm but that, because of Mr. Zobel’s sensitive direction, doesn’t feel exploitative at all. A brilliant exploration of the power of authority and our own morality, the kind of movie that will stay with you and provoke post-movie discussions like crazy.

The conclusions that the film comes up with as a result of this exploration are, obviously, unflattering, and you will obviously think that not in a million years you would never do what these people did, but that question will still linger on. I mean, of course I too feel that way, that there’s no way anyone could be stupid enough to follow through on those orders, but there’s a follower inside most of us, a part of us that’s willing to accept stuff just because other people are going along with it. Obviously you’d think that while that may be true it would never come to this extreme, but still, it’s the point that’s being made that matters.

This is the kind of movie that has elicited quite a few walk-outs in theaters, people being too flabbergasted by it all, obviously thinking that they’re smarter than the people here and would never do that and shouldn’t stay through the whole thing. That just shows you how damn effective Compliance is at getting into the ugly side of things here, to showcase our human tendency to obey authority and fear their disapproval. It’s really easy to say one wouldn’t do this thing, but it’s also scary when the film ends to find out that this “prank” worked 70 times. It’s scary to really get into what that says about us, something that’s amplified because the actors here all do a very good job at making us feel as though we know these people.

I was very, very impressed with Compliance. I think that Mr. Zobel, on just his second directorial effort, has proven himself to be a very intelligent director, giving us this naturalistic feel to that movie and an unassuming tone that just builds and builds, slowly escalating to the horrors I’ve recounted. In a way you could say that Mr. Zobel acts as the caller here: every scene gets harder and harder to sit through in this film, and it’s as though he’s going “Are you going to leave the theater now? No? How about now?” I knew about the incidents before seeing this movie and I can’t imagine what a “wow” moment it must be to not know about them and realize with the closing disclaimer that this stuff is real.

What I loved the most is that, in not being exploitative of this material at all, Mr. Zobel offers up the best exploration of the many questions this film has because he’s faithful to the characters and is never judgmental towards them. Having this blind faith in authority can lead you do to horrible things without questioning it once, and this film acknowledges that and is about the fault lines in our moral system and how we must think for ourselves. Yes, there’s no doubt that this is a tough film to sit through, but it’s also necessary viewing.

Grade: A-

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