Monday, September 24, 2012


COMPLIANCE (Craig Zobel, 2012)

ChickWich 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.

The 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.

Teenage 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.

The 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.
If 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 states.)

That 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.

A 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.    

Healy’s 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.

Grade: B-