As infuriating as Craig Zobel’s Compliance is, any righteous indignation will likely be potentiated when considering the fact this story is true, based on true events. What’s worse, and perhaps the most intriguing, is there may be something inside you that says you may just have acted the same way if you were in the same circumstances that Zobel’s characters found themselves in.
Compliance takes place at a fictional fast food restaurant named ChickWick, on a Friday, one if its busiest nights. The restaurant supervisor, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is capable to the extent the somewhat mindless job requires. She seems to have a respectable handle on her staff of considerably younger, and less career-oriented employees. In the midst of the demanding rush hour for the restaurant, Sandra receives a call from the local police, informing her that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), working the register is accused of stealing from a customer’s purse. The officer identifies himself as officer Daniels and asks Sandra to search Becky, and her belongs, for the missing money. When the search turns nothing up, Officer Daniels’ demands become more invasive. Using alternating flattery and intimidation, he encourages Sandra to follow his instructions. It begins with a strip search. This is only the beginning.
Through careful direction, shining performances, and a thoughtful script, writer and director Zobel explores pain and humiliation in the context of the American workplace. If this were simply an artistic expression of dark ideas, Compliance may have failed one its primary obligations: to convince the audience to suspend its disbelief. Most certainly, those in the audience thought to themselves many times how they would have simply said no, and walked away from a situation that really does take humiliation to intense depths (it caused a stir at Sundance earlier this year). Fortunately, not only does Zobel have one story to back up the nearly unbelievable shenanigans, the hoax call actually happened around seventy times in thirty different states. Time after time, a prankster convinced low-level management to conduct strip searches on young women employees often earning not more than $6.35 an hour.
There were moments when I absolutely thought I would not be coaxed into such an unsavory competition. I’ve seen enough crime procedurals, I have enough family members who are attorneys to know this is not constitutionally legal in any sense. Especially considering how Becky was kept in the manager’s office against her will (suddenly it’s felony kidnapping slapped on to illegal search and seizure). But the film begins on a low heat, and before you know it, you’re the proverbial frog who failed to notice just when things became dangerous. And once you’re in over your head, it’s like taking a punch to the gut, and you’re as helpless as Becky to stop what’s happening.
Ms. Dowd is a force to be reckoned with, she is simply stunning to watch. Her performance makes the dynamic between Becky and Sandra even more nuanced as Dowd finds a way to make her character both kind, but resentful of the younger, more attractive Becky. In turn, Ms. Walker’s brave performance assisted the fine script in removing any sort of titillation to Becky’s horrible, horrible Friday night experiences. The guttural cello-driven score plucks emotional chords within our stomachs that are certainly more subtle than, say that climactic scene in 127 Hours, but not less painful. The final scene, compared to the tumultuous rest of the film, is calm and a bit introspective. It shows Sandra, after nearly all is said and done, being interviewed about her undeniable part in the events. She neither accepts responsibility, nor shirks it. It invites a mournful meditation on what it means to just be following orders and if it can ever be an acceptable moral defense.