United States. Directed by Craig Zobel, 2012. Starring Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ann Dowd. 89 minutes.
Another stressful Friday at a ChickWich franchise in Ohio. Last night, an employee left a freezer door ajar before closing up; over a thousand dollars’ worth of food spoiled. Manager Sandra Fromme (Ann Dowd) managed to wrangle an emergency shipment from the warehouse to replace some of it, but bacon remains in short supply. If that’s not bad enough, regional HQ is sending a “secret shopper” to the restaurant tonight, to evaluate the crew’s service. Sandra doesn’t need any more hassles.
She gets one anyway, in the form of a phone call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who tells her he has an irate customer with him and Sandra’s regional manager on the other line. The customer claims to be the victim of a theft committed at the restaurant an hour earlier by one of the counter jockeys, a blonde girl, about 19 years of age. The police aren’t currently able to spare any uniforms to investigate yet, so Daniels asks Sandra for her help, and tells her that the regional manager authorizes her to assist him in whatever way he needs.
Daniels’s description matches Becky (Dreama Walker), one of Sandra’s least favorite crew members, so she calls her into the office for a chat. Becky, of course, denies the theft. Daniels doesn’t believe her, and tells Sandra she needs to search the young woman. She doesn’t have the money on her.
Nobody ever doubts the officers’s story. Nobody considers the possibility that no theft ever occurred, and that “Officer Daniels” mightn’t be a cop at all. Nobody questions him when he instructs them to strip-search Becky, or to treat her in a more extreme manner. They just assume he is who he says he is, and comply with his instructions, even when they cross the line to sexual harassment and beyond.
Before the night is over, trust will be shattered, careers will be destroyed, and lives will be ruined…all because of a middle-aged man with a prepaid cell phone and a few calling cards, claiming to be a policeman.
Compliance begins with the boilerplate disclaimer that it’s based on a true story. For once, that’s not bullshit: writer/director Craig Zobel changed the names of people, places and companies, but his screenplay matches, plot point for plot point, an incident that occurred at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in April of 2004.
Turns out that disclaimer is pretty much crucial, because it makes a point. I’m not sure how well Contrivance would work if it were pure fiction instead of merely fictionalized. I don’t think it’s accurate to call these events “unbelievable”; in fact, they’re all too believable, because it’s easy to be blasé and cynical about human gullibility/stupidity/herd mentality/moral decay/whatever you want to call it. But knowing that these things actually happened makes it harder to write these events off.
Zobel never bothers to concretely answer the question “How the fuck could this possibly happen?” But he gives several hints, and the most obvious one comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, as “Officer Daniels” talks Sandra’s tipsy fiancée Van through the finer points of keeping a naked 19-year-old girl under control. Van needs to make Becky call him “sir,” he needs to spank her like he’s her daddy when she “mouths off” to Sandra.
He needs to assert authority over her, and to trigger her programming to submit. Just like Daniels does whenever he tells someone, “You need to calm down, and you really should call me ‘officer.’ Or ‘sir.’” Do we all have this programming? Are we all that different from Sandra, Van and the rest of the crew?
At this point, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Compliance is a horror movie, and not one of the fun ones, either. It’s one of the ones that makes you feel numb or hollow inside at the end, and you need a good cry or maybe a shower. Just with emotional violence instead of physical.
And Zobel’s devotion to the actual sequence of events makes the film harder to watch. Modern horror and thriller films tend to utilize a “roller-coaster” structure, a cascading sequence of events to build tension and release tension. Compliance, on the other hand, is all tension. Occasionally the action (inasmuch as you can call a bunch of people talking on the phone with each other “action”) breaks for a minute or two, but not very often, but by the time the climax hits, you’re going to want to run screaming from the room.
This is all well and good, but it is the sort of film that needs a good cast to sell it and it’s got one. Dreama Walker puts in an admirably brave performance as Becky, Pat Healy’s “Officer Daniels” commands the entire film (pun intended), but it’s Ann Dowd as Sandra who has the toughest role: you have to see her as an ordinary, average Everywoman who commits a series of increasingly horrifying acts simply because a man she believes to be an officer of the law tells her they’re the right things to do.
Compliance isn’t a work of entertainment. It will make you uncomfortable and it will make you think about things you’d rather not think about; it might even force you to face an ugly truth about yourself. It is art.