COMPLIANCE (Craig Zobel, 2012)
manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already on edge at the start of the work
day in COMPLIANCE. The previous night an employee left a freezer door
open, resulting in nearly $1500 in spoiled food and leaving the fast
food restaurant short on bacon and pickles. A secret shopper may be
visiting to assess how well the store is performing. Then comes a call
from a police officer.
caller identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) and asks for
Sandra’s help. A woman has come to the police and is accusing a female
ChickWich employee of stealing money from her purse. The policeman
states that their surveillance unit also backs up the claim. Officer
Daniels requests Sandra’s assistance with the suspected thief until he
can arrive on the scene.
cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) fits the description of the guilty party,
so Sandra pulls her from her register and brings her into a back
office. Officer Daniels asks Sandra to search Becky’s pockets and take
Becky’s phone and purse. When that fails to turn up the stolen money,
he persuades Sandra to conduct a strip search and Becky to submit to it.
As he explains, it’s in Becky’s best interest. Either they can clear
up the matter of the alleged theft in the moment or Becky can be taken
downtown for processing and potentially spend the night in jail.
strip search is also unsuccessful in producing evidence that Becky took
any money, but Officer Daniels is not willing to let the charge drop or
let Becky put her clothes back on. Still on the phone, he guides the
manager through how he’d like for her to detain Becky while Sandra
attends to her job over the next several hours.
the situation in COMPLIANCE sounds fishy, that’s because it is.
Writer-director Craig Zobel possesses something of a free pass in the
fact that the film is inspired by true events. No matter how
unbelievable the escalation of personal violation in the scenario may
seem, it sticks closely to the documented report of a specific incident
in which a man making a prank call convinced others to victimize an
innocent employee. (This was one of over 70 similar scams in 30
COMPLIANCE has facts to support even the most outrageous actions cuts
both ways in terms of its success as drama. To its advantage, anyone
with foreknowledge of this story will be inclined to accept everything
at face value. Any other film trying to pass off some of the
developments as believable would face more viewer skepticism, yet
awareness of the truth in what’s being depicted drains COMPLIANCE of the
shock value it is trying to capitalize on. The film’s primary weakness
is in letting the facts do the heavy lifting in what can be little more
than a dramatized police report.
better film would have dug into the psychological complexity behind the
decisions the characters make, especially the most implausible ones.
Nevertheless, COMPLIANCE functions as a fascinating and mortifying
glimpse at how readily and illogically people will submit to authority,
whether it’s law enforcement or a boss. From the outside looking in it
seems preposterous that a situation would get this out of hand, but
COMPLIANCE’s best scenes show how a series of small steps can get folks
to walk over the edge rather than requiring a single big jump. It also
demonstrates the perceptual leaps people will make when provided with
vague bits of information. Dowd excels at conveying the struggle of not
really wanting to go forward with what Sandra is asked to demand of
Becky but doing so anyway. After all, the man on the phone sounds
official and gives her the confidence to act in a way that she likely
wouldn’t if she took a couple moments to assess what is happening.
performance is mostly in voiceover, making him like a devil on the
shoulder using firm speaking and the power of suggestion to convince
people to do what deep down they know they shouldn’t. Without setting
foot in that small back office he materializes a complicitous and
taunting presence that allows the unthinkable to be done. What people
do in COMPLIANCE is troubling. That it ultimately requires so little to
take them to that point is more disturbing.