If you have any faith in humanity, "Compliance" is not the movie for you. It is a fiercely unsettling and overwhelmingly uncomfortable cinematic experience. It's a startling look into the abuse of power and the terrifying ability for outside authority – or even just the illusion of it – to overtake common human logic. Writer/director Craig Zobel has crafted a very good film, albeit one that I never want to see again.
The story follows a seemingly average night at Chick-Wich – a stand-in for McDonald's. Led by their middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), the young, mostly teenage staff prepares for the nightly rush, the big news being a bacon shortage due to a fridge mishap from the night before.
The lack of bacon becomes a very minor problem, however, when Sandra receives a call from a police officer accusing one of her workers (Dreama Walker) of stealing money from a customer. After searching her personal belongings, the officer's requests become more extreme, including strip-searching the employee, cavity searches and escalating sexual humiliations. Yet through it all, no one says no to the officer's absurd demands or investigate his equally absurd claims.
If they had, perhaps they would've realized the police officer wasn't a police officer at all. Instead, it was just an imposter, pranking the employees and even the manager's fiance, who gets involved in the situation and allows himself to be talked into committing heinous acts.
"Compliance"'s tale would seem preposterous if it wasn't a real story that happened to real people. The film's main influence is an incident from 2004 in Mount Washington, Ky., but over 70 similar stories played out across the country, acting as a sort of horrifying real-world Milgram experiment but without its modicum of moral restraint.
Zobel re-enacts the repulsive events with a thankfully restrained amount of fake drama and glamor. The film plays out like a procedural, slowly (a few times, such as an seemingly endless stroll in a parking lot, too slowly) watching the events horrifying unfold and sickeningly crescendo. Signs of neglect haunt the film; a dripping faucet here, a small patch of peeling paint there. Pay attention to the details; the movie seems to cry.
All the while, "Compliance" becomes more intense and emotionally draining. It's hard not to yell out "Jesus, somebody DO something!" (Your fellow audience members would appreciate if you didn't.) Some categorize the movie as a horror film. It certainly feels like one, except replace a knife-wielding mute with a phone-wielding charmer.
I wish Zobel didn't reveal the devious caller so early into the story. Introducing him does move "Compliance" out of the restaurant and gives it some variety, but the story and its message was more powerful when the villain was simply a calm, everyday voice on the phone. Letting the audience in on his true identity makes the employees seem all the more incompetent. Maybe that was the point, but it takes away from understanding how such a glaring logical oversight could've happened.
The fact that the characters are remotely relatable is thanks to the performances. Dowd is especially terrific as the over-her-head manager, allowing herself to be sweet-talked and convinced into letting the unbelievable happen. In a way, though, she's heartbreakingly believable, especially during some scenes at the end when she's forced by an interviewer to face her horrid mistakes. Zobel's camera fixes on her face, feeling guilt but also searching for somebody to understand. To call her either a victim or a culprit would be wildly oversimplifying.
Walker is great as well as the prankster's tragic victim and main cog in his sick game of pretend. It's soul-crushingly sad to watch her character move from confusion to frustration to helpless resignation. She moves from hoping someone would help her to just hoping it would eventually end.
"Compliance" works as a harrowing psychological thriller, as well as a cautionary tale about the influence of authority. Every character is seeking control and a sense of power that they feel they've lost. The prankster is the most obvious case, but Sandra is berated in the beginning for poorly running the restaurant, and her fiance clearly fears their impending marriage. Unsurprisingly, the real-life couple split after the event.
It's a fascinating tale, chillingly told with first-rate performances that I'm absolutely fine with never seeing again.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published July 24, 2014
Every now and then, the writers here at OnMilwaukee.com decide to give other, unique jobs a try. Some have tried cheesemaking. Others the ballet. Me? Well, I fought in the Civil War.
Published July 22, 2014
"The Purge: Anarchy" finds DeMonaco coming closer to turning a good premise into an actually good movie. The sequel still feels like a missed opportunity for something smarter, sharper and just overall better, but hey, at least he made a decent horror thriller this time.
Published July 22, 2014
In addition to the successful rotation of the Oriental, the Downer and the Fox Bay movie theaters, the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival has recruited the Times Cinema to its Avengers team of old school Milwaukee movie houses.
Published July 21, 2014
Thankfully, "Fire and Rescue" is a step above its predecessor, if only because the movie was actually made for big screen consumption this time. Gone is the stiff, antiseptic joylessness of the first film, now upgraded to mere bland competence. If "Planes" was like eating cardboard, "Fire and Rescue" is slightly more digestible cardboard. So progress?
Published July 19, 2014
All musicians create new music. Even the most derivative Top 40 hit features a new combination of notes and lyrics. Very few, however, can claim to have come up with a whole new genre of sound. Chicago blues extraordinaire Corky Siegel is one of those few.
Published July 17, 2014
As a fan rooting for Argentina in the World Cup, last weekend was likely a little rough for Italian crooner Patrizio Buanne. This upcoming weekend, however, is shaping up much more nicely with two headlining performances set for Festa Italiana.
Published July 15, 2014
Today marked the kickoff of the Greater Together Challenge, a competition launched to create awareness, hope and ideas to dismantle segregation, as well as address racial and economic inequality in greater Milwaukee.
Published July 15, 2014
Even though it's not even 30 years old, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical retelling of "The Phantom of the Opera" has turned into a truly iconic story, one whose elements are ingrained in the memory even if you haven't seen it. So to tinker around with the show is a bold idea. But that's exactly the case with the upcoming production of the show coming to the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
Published July 15, 2014
Milwaukee music fans - and fans of good music just in general - have been waiting since 2012 for news of a new record from Field Report and frontman Chris Porterfield. Well, wait no longer. Last month, Porterfield and company announced the name ("Marigolden") and release date for a sophomore album, and the good news keeps coming, as yesterday the band unveiled "Wings," the first track off the anticipated record.
Published July 12, 2014
It only makes sense that, after seven years and a few projects reaching no further past his home country's shores, John Carney would want to see if the magic of "Once" could happen twice with "Begin Again." His attempt at an encore comes cleaned up of the original's homemade, lo-fi authenticity and complete with a new starry sheen. The heart and charm are still there, though.