Before any second of action starts in Compliance, director Craig Zobel wants to make sure the audience knows something. Prior to a bizarre, stomach-churning series of events in the back office of a fast food restaurant, the words “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS” fill the entire movie screen. Even after that preface, anyone attending the film with some sense will question why these characters behave as they do. Some might chalk it up to poor writing or weak character development. But, the truth is, Zobel seems to restrain himself from changing much of anything from the news reports that inspired this film. As writer at a TV news station, I have memories of the 2004 true story behind this film. It would be so easy to fall into a trap to try to make this movie a little more “believable” by softening the facts behind the story. Heck, Hollywood seemed to have done that for the recent fantastical horror story, the Possession. Look at the lesson in both reviews and box office returns (I’d suggest reading the eBay description of the item that inspired the film instead).
But Compliance has nothing to do with the supernatural, which adds to the horror of this movie of sexual assault by phone call. Zobel sets up the banal atmosphere of where the crime unfolds with snowy exteriors of suburbia. The manager of a fictitious fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd, who ingests a low-key pathos into her role) is chastised for letting bacon go to waste by a food delivery man on a Napoleon trip. Sandra takes the verbal abuse, including blue language, like a whipped dog.
When her younger assistant manager and crew of teenage slackers show up to work at the “ChickWich,” she transfers the chastising with meek authority. No one will fess up to leaving the freezer door open, which resulted in the spoiled bacon, as she sets up the discussion with that expectation. Sandra wants to exert authority over her people but earns no respect. She cannot resist inserting herself into a conversation when she overhears her assistant manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) and the cashier, 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker), chatting about Becky’s boyfriends. One boyfriend is boring Becky by continually sending her shirtless pictures over her cell phone. Sandra chimes in about how she’s hip to the “sexting.” She over-shares how her boyfriend, who she sure is about to propose, sends her naked pictures, too. The younger women roll their eyes as soon as Sandra turns her back. By this point in the film, the director has set up part of a perfect storm of personality conflicts.
As the film establishes the hustle of a fast food joint: the grease pits used to cook French fries, the paper-wrapped sandwiches and the hungry mouths they end up in, filling up the screen, the restaurant’s phone rings. Sandra picks up. The voice on the other end identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) and asks if she has a young girl working the register. “Becky?”
“Yes, Rebecca!” says the voice. More cutaways to the chaos of the restaurant and Becky, as this detective on the phone explains that Becky has been accused of stealing from a customer. The voice says the victim is present with him and the district’s general manager is on the other line. “Freddy?” says Sandra. “Yes, Fred!” It soon becomes apparent that distracted, impressionable people are being taken advantage of by a voice of perceived authority. When Sandra hands the phone to Becky, that disembodied voice of authority demands her respect. “I’m going to need you to address me as sir of officer,” he says when she gets defensive about the allegations.
I could go into the details, but if you have not read the news stories that inspired Compliance, you will be more impressed going into the movie blind. Do note that this is not a date movie, but may make a good group film, as you may feel inclined to talk out the trauma after the film. The horrors will not satisfy superficial gorehounds, as this is not one of those films, but horrors indeed unfold in that office, starting with a strip search. Some, especially women, might find events that unfold difficult to endure, and the film spends a long time in that office. The camera seems to float voyeuristically, always moving, almost leering over the proceedings, adding to the creepiness factor. But, go back to the title card that fills the opening shot, “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS.” This is a horror show into the limits of social dynamics, and the fact that this really happened should serve as a lesson in awareness of one’s own humanity.
Zobel knows he has a good story, and he respects it. Walker, whose famous today as the goody-goody roommate in the ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” puts on a brave face throughout her character’s gradual downward spiral into degradation. The supporting cast members who each have a turn “guarding” her offer an array of reactions that will make one question what drives the core of a person to do what they do, some of whom seem to sleep walk through life. One of the more unsettling reactions has to be that of Marti who plays with her tongue ring as she watches Becky strip with a distant, voyeuristic apathy. Meanwhile, Sandra cries a single, silent tear as she follows the caller’s orders that she demand Becky remove everything.
The film does soften the blow to these events by eventually revealing the man on the other side of the line. It also feels inclined to end with a seemingly slapped on, unnecessary resolution. However, some in the audience might feel relief to have some “light” after the harrowing events in the ChickWich office. Besides, there is one more title card regarding the reality of these events to endure at the end of the film that packs a wallop of a reality check.
Compliance is Rated R (it earns it) and runs 95 minutes. It opens in the South Florida area theatrically beginning this Friday, Sept. 21, at many indie theaters:
Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned nationally throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. The Miami Beach Cinematheque invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)