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 ‚Äď or even just the illusion of it ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 Aug. 25, 2016
Today, County Executive Chris Abele released a statement in the hopes of clarifying Milwaukee County's stance on Pokemon Go. It's fairly identical to what his office and the Parks Department said yesterday - just this time, with a lot of puns.
Published Aug. 24, 2016
The year 2016 has seen some powerful, earth-shattering tiffs in just its eight months, and now our city has a pop cultural beef of its own: Pokemon Go versus the Milwaukee County Parks Department. OnMilwaukee spoke to players and the Parks director for reaction.
Published Aug. 23, 2016
It's never been easier to know about breaking news as it's happening on the ground - and then share that news with others. But the facts can easily become polluted with ever more convincing half-truths, lies and oftentimes simple confusion.
Published Aug. 23, 2016
This morning, the Milwaukee Film Festival announced its latest program lineup, this time for the homegrown Cream City Cinema category. From docs to music videos to dramas to shorts and more, here's what to expect at this year's fest.
Published Aug. 17, 2016
Beginning Friday night, the inaugural Milwaukee Women's Film Festival will present a three-day big screen showcase for women's stories. The project, created by Andrea Thompson, started with a simple question: What are you doing?
Published Aug. 12, 2016
A federal judge today overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, who was found guilty of being an accessory to Teresa Halbach's 2005 murder and served as one of the subjects in the hit Netflix docu-series "Making a Murderer."
Published Aug. 10, 2016
The first stage on which actor JJ Phillips stood and spoke Shakespeare was the Cabot Theater. About two decades later, Phillips is returning to that exact stage - except more as barely clothed bro than Bard in Chamber's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."
Published Aug. 9, 2016
Henry "The Fonz" Winkler is in Milwaukee today for tomorrow night's Wisconsin State Fair "Happy Days: Live" main stage show. So what does The Fonz do to kill some time in the city that helped make him famous? We'll give you one guess.
Published Aug. 8, 2016
After weeks of lead-up, the torch has finally been lit and the games are underway. But when is the gymnastics team on? And when can I catch some table tennis matches? Organized sport by sport, here's when you can catch everything on TV.
Published Aug. 5, 2016
In just a few years, Milwaukee filmmaker Aaron Biebert has gone from mocking e-cigarette users and vapers to fighting for their cause, landing right in the middle of the ongoing smoking/vaping debate with his upcoming documentary, "A Billion Lives."