Dreama Walker as Becky. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for Compliance.
May 6, 2013
I keep waiting for the goodness to kick in. Soon after the Boston Marathon bombings, comedian Patton Oswalt took to his Facebook page and posted a heartening message of hope, assuring us that "the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers." I would very much like that to be true. Yet humanity's cruelty seeps through even the most positive of vibes and most meaningful of gestures, suffocating everyone. Oswalt believes the good outnumber the bad. The problem is that the two of them are so tangled - the line between them so blurred - people couldn't accurately classify themselves as either one if they tried.
Craig Zobel's controversial film Compliance incited catcalls at its Sundance debut, which is more a testament of its ability to cut viewers to the bone than a criticism of its quality. A blistering indictment of our innate desire to inflict pain, psychological or physical, delivered with expert restraint, it's inspired by real events that took place in a Bullitt County McDonald's. In 2004, 51-year-old assistant manager Donna Summers strip-searched and ultimately endorsed the violent and sexually-abusive degradation of 18-year-old employee Louise Ogborn. Why? Because a man, identifying himself as "Officer Scott," phoned the fast food store, claimed Ogborn had stolen from a customer, and insisted Summers take action then and there. Even with that explanation, the question 'Why?' remains.
Ann Dowd as Sandra.
In Zobel's feature, just barely removed from reality, the turmoil goes down at a fictional ChickWich branch. It seems like it's located in Minnesota; it probably could be based anywhere in the United States, or the rest of the western world. It opens on a Friday morning; store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is steeling herself and her crew for one hell of a shift. They're short-staffed, low on bacon, pickle-free, and expecting a big rush in the evening. She's not particularly respected by her employees, though they're not particularly disrespectful. Becky (Dreama Walker) mans the front counter, bragging about all the boys blowing up her cell. Sandra counters by mentioning her saucy relationship with almost-fiancée Van (Bill Camp). Seems they indulge in a bit of "sexting" themselves. By the end of the evening, that won't even be the half of it.
A call comes through from an "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy), though it's soon revealed to be a regular seeming suburban dad from another state. He calmly but firmly informs Sandra that he's got surveillance video that proves Becky took some money from an unsuspecting customer, and she's in fact a key suspect in a larger investigation. Thing is, he's just swamped right now and can't get down to the ChickWich right away. Would Sandra mind conducting a strip search on the premises and keeping Becky in the back office until someone can swing by and pick her up? Sandra's conflicted, however, his flattery and appreciation of her professionalism seem to be all that's needed to convince her that this is legit. Even Becky, certain of her innocence and confused by the claims, doesn't make too much of an effort to escape. The slow-burn manipulation leads to her eventually referring to everyone charged with watching her as "sir." This includes Van, summoned by Sandra to babysit Becky during the dinner rush. Daniels doesn't have to work hard to convince him to torture the young girl even further.
Pat Healy as Officer Daniels.
You'll keep waiting for someone to do the right thing in Compliance, and then it dawns on you that perhaps no one ever will. Even the employees of the ChickWich who smell something fishy never reach out to anyone else for help, or attempt to rescue Becky from her horrible fate. When I first heard of the original Bullitt County ordeal, it was easy to brush it aside with the assumption that all involved were, frankly, stupid, or, even more conveniently, latently evil. Even if that is the case with the true story, that is not the case in Compliance. Sandra, Becky, their colleagues, and even Van for a spell, just seem so reasonable and relatable. They ask questions; just not the right questions. They object, but never walk away, like the subjects of Stanley Milgram's famous electrocution experiment. It would have been cheap for Zobel to position these characters as imbeciles for us to look down on; as if they were a sub-species of sea monkeys left to torment one another in his Petri dish. As it stands, it's hard to look at these people and dissociate entirely. That goes for Healy's fake police officer too; in the age of Reddit, and Anonymous, and mass trolling in general, he is, most frighteningly, maybe the realest seeming character of all.
Dowd and Walker are sublime; the former convincingly compartmentalises Becky's back-room trial into just another chore on this busy Friday night, while the latter's slow humiliation is made all the worse by her inability - or unwillingness - to object too loudly. Zobel miraculously manages to keep this intimate story cinematic, aided by DOP Adam Stone's roaming camera (which makes the process of cooking - and eating - fast food a grotesque side show to the central plot), and composer Heather McIntosh's brief bursts of melodramatic score. In the final moments, we finally get to glimpse what the security cameras have seen, painting everything that's come before in a slightly different light. Zobel also indulges in just one flashy camera trick; a long, single take from the perspective of a car window that seeks to highlight the cosmic joke of it all. His script wraps up all the loose ends a dash too quickly. Nonetheless, what's come before is not so easily erased. Compliance is a horror movie with no sudden frights, no gore, and not a single scream. It's a surveillance video, capturing us with all our blemishes; a reminder that how we see ourselves is so rarely in line with the truth.
Compliance is available on DVD and via Pay Per Play from May 8, 2013.