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 Oct. 5, 2015
After two weeks of binging on movies, what better way to bring the Milwaukee Film Festival to a close than a movie about a movie recreating another movie? That's at least the hope with the festival's closing night pick, "Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made." Considering the film took 30 years to finish, that subtitle isn't exaggerating either.
Published Oct. 5, 2015
We're now in the final stretch of the movie marathon that is the Milwaukee Film Festival, and while you may be getting exhausted, the lineup certainly isn't yet. There are still plenty of great movies to check out - and here are three in particular for today!
Published Oct. 4, 2015
Time to cook up some meatballs, saffransbullar and pepparkakor because on Day 11 of the Milwaukee Film Festival, we're headed to Sweden. Here are your three picks for the day, nicely assembled like a lovely Ikea shelving unit.
Published Oct. 3, 2015
William "Dub" Lawrence knows more about the current tensions between cops and citizens than most people - and from both sides of the debate. As former Utah sheriff, he helped create the state's first SWAT team in 1975, serving over 16,000 warrants without issue. 30 years later, that very team he helped bring to life would be responsible for his son-in-law's death. His story and ensuing investigation takes the spotlight in the doc "Peace Officer."
Published Oct. 3, 2015
I hope you got some sleep yesterday, because the two of the three picks for Day 10 of the Milwaukee Film Festival are going to keep you up late - and, in the case of one selection, on your feet.
Published Oct. 2, 2015
It can be tough to keep a full head of steam going all the way through the entire film festival, but here are three - or at least two - inspiring picks for Day 9.
Published Oct. 1, 2015
Ethan Hawke's "Seymour: An Introduction" is also not the most inventively filmed doc, but what it plainly captures is beautiful and heartwarming nonetheless: the joy of music, talent and craft out of the spotlight but far from out of service.
Published Oct. 1, 2015
It's Day 8 of the Milwaukee Film Festival, and for today's three must-see picks, we're selecting some of the biggest stars of the festival.
Published Sept. 30, 2015
A brave community advocate, a post-apocalyptic kid hero in a world gone mad and two guys fighting over a severed foot. That's what's on deck in Day 7's edition of Three to see.
Published Sept. 29, 2015
After volunteering at a local homeless shelter, former federal agent Faith Kohler's two goals - to share their stories with the world and to affirmatively help those in trouble - dovetailed together into something seemingly much different from her past federal work: filmmaking. The end result, the feature-length doc "30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle," finally brings those stories to the big screen this week at the Milwaukee Film Festival.