Review: Compliance – As they say truth can be stranger than fiction

Is Compliance a great piece of filmmaking? Maybe. Is it as good a reflection of the times we live in as any other contemporary film? Oh, it sure is.

The premise of this Craig Zobel film is shocking, and the shock element goes up a few notches once you learn that it is based on actual events. By the time 90 minutes were over and the end credits started rolling I had just one question in my mind – how can this be based on real events? I Google-d it and there it was – the Bullitt County McDonald’s case and various other strip search prank call scams across America. It would be an understatement to call this film disturbing. If films like Evil Dead and V/H/S 2 seemed disturbing to you, then let me tell you that Compliance will top them without much effort and with zero blood and gore. So, it is with due reason that some had termed Compliance the most disturbing film of 2012.

What makes Compliance disturbing is its claustrophobia. The claustrophobia is created by tightly framed shots and extremely subtle camera movements. The film is presented with an honesty found in good documentaries. Yet this psychological thriller is smartly paced and brilliantly acted. Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, and Pat Healy play the key roles in this film and bring the story to life.

So, what is the story?

During a 10 year period between 1994 and 2004, supposedly, reports had surfaced of a man pretending to be a police officer (or of any other authoritative figure) and making calls to fast-food restaurants. He accused one of the female employees of having committed a crime and ordered the manager to conduct a strip search of this employee. In some cases he also ordered certain sexual acts to be performed on this employee. This film depicts one such incident that took place at a McDonald’s outlet in Mount Washington, Kentucky. Dreama Walker plays Becky, the blonde, teenage employee accused of having stolen money from a customer, and Ann Dowd plays Sandra, her well-meaning manager who receives the call from the police officer, who identifies himself Officer Daniels. It starts off with a simple strip search, but then leads to something truly shocking.

As a viewer the first question to strike you will probably be, what was the manager thinking? Why didn’t she check with her superior? Also, why did Becky agree to be strip searched in the first place and not ask the police officer to come in person and show proof? If it was a one-off incident then we might have concluded that either it is a fabricated story or that those particular people were mentally unstable, but there are some 70 instances of similar incidents. It raises a very pertinent question and one which is true for India as well – how many of us have the resources necessary to stand-up against a figure of authority?

At the Sundance premier of this film, a number of audience members walked out of the theater and criticized the film. Was it because the film was bad or was it because with Compliance Zobel had put his finger on particular wounds that these viewers were unable to digest? Did the film remind them of some incident they had witnessed or been a part of? I doubt too many people walked out of a V/H/S 2 screening, and that film has quite a few explicit and graphic gory/violent sequences. That must have made their stomachs churn, but no one walked out. Why?

The performances – particularly by Ann Dowd as Sandra and Dreama Walker as Becky – play an important role in creating a sense of tension prevalent throughout the film. The situation depicted in the film is so ludicrous that the actors were the only ones capable to brining a semblance of lucidity/comprehension to the film. Dowd as the befuddled manager is excellent, and Walker was such a natural as Becky that one point I started really feeling sad for her as a person and as an actor – now that’s job well done!

In a way watching Compliance is like being part of a social experiment. Initially it will make you wonder about its plausibility, then it will make you cringe with each succeeding sequence, and eventually it will make you ponder.

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