REVIEW: Compliance [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 90 minutes | Release Date: August 17th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): Craig Zobel
Writer(s): Craig Zobel

“Let’s just get this over with”

Films like Craig Zobel‘s Compliance make you question humanity. It’s easy to say, “How could so many people be so stupid?” but at the same time hard not to view those duped into becoming predators as victims too. What happened to Louise Ogborn on April 9, 2004 in a Kentucky McDonald’s is the tragic culmination of our American culture gradually dismantling its desire to possess a voice. Gone are the days of innocent until proven guilty when a universal trend towards self-preservation usurps the quest for justice. The crippling fear of authority figures threatening to destroy a reputation by impossible ultimatums creating an atmosphere of confusion is too strong to overcome when our society has been manipulated into thinking an obedient subservience is the only way to survive. We’ve forgotten how to educate our citizens what freedom truly means.

It’s disgusting to think Ogborn’s horrifying ordeal occurred at all let alone close to seventy similar cases over ten years in thirty states when you’ve been brought up to believe good exists in every man. What does it say about law enforcement if sexual abuse can be justified as long as a police officer condones it? What does it say about the neighbors and friends we wave hello to every day when a good percentage would probably turn on you if the right circumstances were presented? Has our country become so jaded that the word of someone we should trust implicitly means nothing compared to the accusations of a disembodied voice declaring itself an upholder of the law? Zobel’s fictionalized account proves itself an effective modern horror because it answers with an unequivocal, “yes”.

We’re not yet living in a police state—whether we’re headed there or not is its own political debate—but reality means little if we cannot discern it through our filters of insecurities bred from a newfound lack of moral code. Ours is a world of extreme media saturation and strong-arm maneuvers such as extradition and torture are now completely transparent. It’s naïve to think these things are new and even more naïve to wish the days of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ would return. We know it’s happening and whether we think we’re immune from it affecting our psychological make-up or not, it does. The lingering fear that one wrong step could put us in chains far from home and without a hope for escape resides in us all.

And this is why the events depicted in Compliance are so scary. They not only can happen anywhere—they did. For a pretty, fun-loving nineteen-year old girl named Becky (Dreama Walker), the ChickWich should be a safe place. It’s a public establishment populated by others her age making minimum wage as they vent about life’s innocuous mundanities. Co-workers and bosses are supposed to have your back, knowing you better than your own family since you probably spend more time there and school than you do at home. So when a call comes accusing you of stealing from a customer’s purse, your word should hold weight no matter who is on the other line. Even if that voice is a policeman—in this case Officer Daniels (Pat Healy)—the benefit of the doubt should be given until evidence is brought forth.

Why then does everything go so terribly, terribly wrong? It’s all about the fear of being held complicit to the crime. For the ChickWich’s store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), the trouble she thinks she’s already in courtesy of an open fridge door the night before has her on edge. In looking for shielding from the blame her transgression warrants, she willingly does the bidding of a complete stranger despite knowing how morally repugnant her actions are. As her conscience weighs heavier with each step into hell, the opportunity to pass on the responsibility can’t come soon enough. Widening the circle of those in the know should quicken the process of discovering the dark prank at work, yet somehow it only cements a sociopath’s story through increased deflection and humanity’s ease at avoiding guilt.

Zobel has really put Ogborn’s harrowing experience onscreen in its gory details. The pacing builds suspense, the camera gets all the angles right as far as corroborating witness testimony with carefully placed obstructions inside the restaurant’s cramped backroom, and the fast-paced cuts to happy customers ignorant to what’s happening mere feet away as they bask in fast food culture with carefree attitudes make it all hit very close to home. One single-take sequence of Detective Neals (James McCaffrey) getting in his squad car to drive over to the ChickWich is equally impressive to watch as it is minimalist perfection visually showing us how long it should take Officer Daniels to arrive. The detail truly showing Zobel has what it takes to be a successful director lies in the performances.

Each orchestrates his/her roles flawlessly. Philip Ettinger‘s Kevin and Ashlie Atkinson‘s Marti embody fast food employee and shift manager respectively; Healy’s perpetrator pricelessly finds himself unable to hold back grins when his orders are followed; and Bill Camp‘s Van steals more than a few scenes with a crisis of conscience etched in his eyes as it simply cannot stop him from doing terrible things. It’s Sandra and Becky, however, who really drive the plot and make you believe the insanity depicted actually happened. Dowd keeps a firm grasp on her character’s conflict despite selfishness ruling every action and Walker is a vulnerable mess of psychological, emotional, and physical turmoil. It’s a star-making turn by the young television actress inside a cautionary tale that will hopefully open the eyes of young and old across the nation.

[1] Dreama Walker in COMPLIANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Pat Healy in COMPLIANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] Ann Dowd in COMPLIANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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