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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, July 26, 2014

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Dreama Walker in "Compliance."
Dreama Walker in "Compliance."

"Compliance": the feel-awful movie of the year

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.

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