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 Dec. 21, 2014
The bad news for "Wild": Director Jean-Marc Vallée, at least three films into his career this side of the Canadian border, specializes in making Oscar bait. No, wait; don't run away quite yet, because the flip side is that Vallée has mastered the art of making Oscar bait that doesn't feel like it. And now he's pulling off the same trick with "Wild."
Published Dec. 20, 2014
With its brand of rock music uncoils, cracks and unleashes in sharp, aggressive, raw fashion with a swift dash of sex appeal, Whips is an remarkably appropriate name for the Milwaukee-based rock foursome. And now the quartet has a new LP, "Turn It On," arriving Saturday night at a record release show at the Cactus Club.
Published Dec. 19, 2014
"The Interview" was canceled this past week amongst hack attacks and terrorist threats. It doesn't matter that this happened to THIS particular movie. What matters is what this means for ALL movies. And what this moment represents is a terrible precedent for the future of film and art altogether.
Published Dec. 17, 2014
When I arrived to interview Harlem Globetrotter Sweet J Ekworomadu - the 12th female player in the team's 89-year history - in advance of their traditional New Year's Eve game at the BC, I was asked if I wanted to play a game of horse with Sweet J. Considering I hadn't shot a basketball since probably middle school, I couldn't turn down the opportunity fast enough. I was, however, able to ask some one-on-one questions with Ekworomadu.
Published Dec. 16, 2014
The story behind "It's a Wonderful Life" is now almost as well-known as the story of George Bailey himself. The movie performed below expectations back in 1946, but several decades later, as the movie made its way into the public domain, "It's a Wonderful Life" grew into a holiday classic. Now there's many renditions of the story, including a staged radio show version - complete with old school sound effects - coming to the Marcus Center.
Published Dec. 15, 2014
Fans have been routinely left waiting for a Chris Rock movie that truly plays up to the standard of Chris Rock. Luckily, the wait is over with the arrival of "Top Five," a loose-limbed comedy about celebrity that feels like a movie worthy of its star - in both its voice and its significant supply of laughs.
Published Dec. 12, 2014
2014 is coming to a close, which means it's time to put my first full calendar year as an official working, adult member of society in the books (well, jury's still out on the adult part). Here are some of the most memorable moments - both good and bad - from a most memorable year.
Published Dec. 10, 2014
Luckily, what's currently housed and featured at the Racine Art Museum is just as interesting and compelling as the building itself: an expansive two-part exhibition called "in(Organic)," a compilation of art works that combine the natural and unnatural - in terms of thematic meaning and artistic medium - in ways both beautiful and often unnerving.
Published Dec. 9, 2014
What doesn't kill you supposedly makes you stronger. In the case of the sneakily incisive new Swedish dark comedy "Force Majeure," however, what doesn't kill you reveals your deepest faults to all of your loved ones. And they are not impressed.
Published Dec. 8, 2014
2014 was the year of the selfie. In the beginning of the year, there was the great Oscars selfie, a photo that literally broke Twitter for a few seconds. The word existed before, but after that, suddenly news stations and outlets were attempting to cram it into every headline (similar to "twerk" in 2013) and everybody was getting on board with the word. A part of that selfie insanity was the irony-drenched EDM hit "#Selfie" from The Chainsmokers.