Movie Review: Compliance (2012)

Magnolia Pictures
Runtime: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Rated: R (for nudity, language, and sexuality)
Director: Craig Zobel
Writer: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Drama | Thriller

“Sandra” (Ann Dowd) is the manager of Chickwich, a fictional fast-food chicken restaurant. And while Sandra would love to stay home with her fiancé and plan the wedding, she knows she has a busy day ahead of her. When she arrives at work, she finds that someone left a freezer door open the night before and $1,400 worth of bacon has gone bad. It’s nothing an emergency meat delivery can’t fix, but it is yet another complication in a day that is going to get much, much worse.

After a short business meeting (with reminders to keep the freezer door closed), the busy Friday has begun and it’s business as usual—until an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) calls, claiming that one of her employees stole from a customer and an investigation is underway to recover the lost money. But the officer is preoccupied with police business and can’t be there to interrogate this employee himself, so he needs Sandra to search her – her and her belongings, her clothes, and what is underneath her clothes – and to detain her until he can get there.

Wanting to help the police like any good citizen would (and believing she has the approval of one of her regional managers because the caller told her so), she agrees, much to the humiliation and degradation of 19-year-old “Becky” (Dreama Walker), who before today was only thinking about how she likes her new pink cell phone cover and texting love messages to her crush. Now, she’s in tears and afraid of losing a job she needs. For her and for everyone  who works in that store, things are going to go very badly because of a single phone call.

Of course, the policeman on the other end of the line isn’t law enforcement at all, just a sociopath who is really persuasive and twisted enough to see his work through. Even when he occasionally messes up in selling his story, he’s sharp enough to re-establish his mental hold on those he has duped. The guy is smart. Watch long enough and you’ll find yourself taken aback by an understatedly comical sense of shock, and it becomes overwhelming. All of this and more is what the movie Compliance has for us.

You want to pity these easily called “stupid” people, but when you learn that the plot-points of the movie actually happened, you stop to give things another perspective, or you should. Prank-callers calling stores and pretending to be cops and getting employees to undress or otherwise cause their rights to be violated has been an ongoing thing from 1992 to 2004. Businesses now have playbooks on how to handle pranksters using tactics that involve so-called law enforcement "deputizing" to help them do their jobs. It was because of incidents like these that such corporate policies exist.

So your desire to call these people stupid may be strong, but just remember that the temptation to please authority figures is still stronger. Nearly everyone wants to be a “good Samaritan” and the message of the movie is that this can be taken advantage of. It’s a drama-thriller and a public service awareness message at the same time!

Compliance is a low-budget film and it feels it, but its high-power performances and remarkably well-crafted writing and keen directing on the part of Craig Zobel put it in a class pretty much by itself. There is just nothing else out there like it—and this because it relies on a simple cliché that couldn’t possibly be truer: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” No one would think to create such a preposterous-sounding idea for a movie. It would have been laughed out of any meeting of execs anywhere, but here it is – and with an artistically tasteful bend – because it really happened and very little was exaggerated.

Since the movie is brought to us with fresh names and faces to the acting world whose presences allow us to watch the story unfold with people not unlike the type we see and work with everyday, we are double-sold on each of the characters and all of their quirks who very nicely create the average workplace, where (just like in the real world) so much can go wrong.

Millions of dollars have been shucked out in lawsuits and settlements over stuff like this. Why? Because of the power to please, because of ignorance, because of fear; because it is ground into us to go to great lengths to kiss the asses of those over us. It’s a sad but shocking story, and any comical overtones emerging from the sheer disbelief are really only another reason to be sad. Wow! Just wow!