Director Craig Zobel’s based-on-actual-events thriller about the abuse of a fast food worker in 2004 divided audiences on its release. Here’s why you should watch a film that even its supporters call one of the most disturbing films ever made.
It’s shocking – and it actually happened
Compliance is the story of one very bad day at a (fictional) fast food restaurant. When “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) calls up and tells harried manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) that one of her staff stole from a customer’s bag, she’s all too quick to blame nineteen year-old Becky (Dreama Walker). The caller tells Sandra that Becky has to be detained until police arrive, then starts to outline a string of increasingly humiliating punishments. Sandra, worried about being seen as uncooperative, goes along; Becky, worried about losing her job, does as well.
The string of abuse and humiliation that follows would be too over-the-top to believe, if not for the fact that it all really happened: the events are based on a real incident that happened in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004. It was just one of an estimated 70 hoax calls to restaurants in 31 US states that took place over the span of a decade. The police eventually arrested and charged a 38 year-old prison warder with making the calls; he was found not guilty of the crimes.
It’s about exploitation without being exploitative
This kind of material could easily slide into exploitation. But director Craig Zobel keeps a tight rein on his story. While he sticks firmly to what actually happened – shocking as that eventually is – he doesn’t dwell on the way Becky is being exploited (a strip search is only the first of the abuses the caller comes up with) and keeps the lurid details to a bare minimum. Instead the focus is on how the characters could go along with these increasingly extreme commands. Sandra is a supervisor in over her head, worried that if she doesn’t go along she’s going to make a bad situation worse; Becky is a worker desperate to keep her job, rendered powerless by a system where she’s an easily replaceable cog.
It’s a con man film with a difference
Most films about cons focus on the fun side. Con men are cool, cons themselves are fun, and the film itself, whether it’s a gritty take like David Mamet’s House of Games or something slicker like Now You See Me or Focus, eventually puts the audience on the right side of the con. But while Compliance follows the basic rule of the con - put your mark in a bubble and don’t let them out and once they’re dealing with you, don’t let them go anywhere or do anything where they can check the validity of what you’re saying – it goes to a very different place. It tells us that if we’re not careful we’re the ones who can be played for suckers, that people will go along with a con until it’s way too late, and after someone’s been ripped off all they’ll be left with is other peoples’ pity. It’s a tough lesson, and it’s hardly surprising a lot of people didn’t want to hear it.
Audiences stormed out of the preview screenings
At the film’s premiere at the 2012 Sundance film festival some audience members stormed out. One shouted “This is not the year to make violence against women entertaining,” while at the Q&A afterwards audience members continued to catcall the director and cast before things settled down. That wasn’t the only time the film had a strong response; reportedly a number of critics at a New York preview screening also walked out, including one woman who shouted “give me a f**ing break!” on her way out the door.
It’s a great film even without the controversy
While it largely sticks to actual events, Zobel does a masterful job of slowly building suspense and horror, constantly cutting between Sandra, Becky, and those around them as we see how the people who can see that something isn’t right are slowly pushed out of frame. The events might be horrific but the focus is on how this could happen as step by step, inch by inch, Becky is reduced from a person to just a thing on the seemingly lawful commands of “Officer Daniels”. His scheme isn’t flawless either; more than once he slips up and for a moment it seems his con is about to fall apart. But each time the pieces come back together; it’s almost as if society is designed to allow this kind of nightmarish abuse to take place.