SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 20, 2012
Director: Craig Zobel
Writer: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Phil Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, James McCaffrey, Stephen Payne
Evidently Craig Zobel’s Compliance was the controversial film of South by Southwest Film 2012, with multiple contentious post-screening Q&A’s with the director, featuring irate viewers accusing Zobel of making an exploitative film. I had the misfortune of attending the film’s third screening, which featured a fireworks-free Q&A, but there was one pointed and insightful question lobbed at Zobel. But more on that later.
Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the manager of an Ohio ChickWich franchise and she’s having a bad day. It seems the freezer was left open the night before and a lot of food spoiled, leaving the restaurant low on bacon and pickles supplies. To make matters worse, a mystery shopper is expected to arrive unannounced any day now. She’s doing her best to stress to the employees about how important it is to be on the ball and do everything by the book but as you can imagine if you’ve ever spent any time in a fast food environment, her preaching falls mostly on deaf ears.
Other than the increased stress, it’s business as usual. At least until the phone rings. It seems there’s a police officer (Pat Healy) on the line and he needs to talk to Sandra about a very important and sensitive matter. A customer has gone to the police and accused cute 19-year old cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) of stealing some cash from her purse. While it’s a bit out of the ordinary, he insists that he’ll need Sandra to assist with the investigation until officers can arrive. Apparently they’re in the middle of a larger investigation involving Becky and her brother but need Becky to be held until they can arrive. Sandra is hesitant at first but in no time at all is under the spell of the authoritative and manipulative voice on the line and is enjoying the thrill of playing police officer by proxy.
Things start off mildly enough, with Sandra taking Becky to a back office where the “officer” asks questions of both women and provides directions on how to proceed. Following directions, Sandra searches Becky’s clothes and purse for the missing money, finding nothing. From there, Sandra is told she will need to have Becky remove her clothing to make sure the money is not hidden in her undergarments. Mildly incredulous at first, the caller uses a mixture of charm and threat to ensure that his commands are eventually followed. Incredibly well conceived and executed, the fear and humiliation conveyed by Becky is palpable and makes for a tough watch. But they’re just doing what they’re told by the voice of authority.
The only problem is that the voice on the line is not that of a police officer, but instead a sadistic prank caller looking for gullible people to provide him with his thrills, a fact that is arguably revealed a bit too early in the film. Based at least loosely on a true story, Compliance presents a chilling tale of a society lacking in the knowledge of their own basic rights, all too eager to comply with anyone presenting a semblance of authority. Of course before I get too preachy myself, let me also add that the film calls to mind the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960’s, in which about 65% of people acted against their own conscience when directed to do so by an authority figure.
I don’t want to reveal too much about how the backroom interrogation plays out lest I rob the film of some of it’s power for future viewers but let me just say that things get a whole lot worse and a lot of people get dragged into the caller’s manipulative web before things come to an end. Various people respond to the caller in various ways. Kevin (Phillip Ettinger), Becky’s fellow youthful cashier, is initially hesitant and finally mildly resistant, ultimately managing to extract himself from direct involvement. Assistant manager Martie (Ashley Atkinson) constantly expresses concern for Becky and tries to be a voice of moderation but is never interested in truly challenging the process. Even Sandra’s boyfriend, Van (Bill Camp), gets called in to assist with the “investigation” and ultimately helps provide the caller with his biggest thrills. Ultimately, it’s the older homeless looking restaurant handyman, Harold (Stephen Payne), who provides the only strong voice of dissent.
Now back to my earlier mention of allegations of exploitation and the question that was asked during the post-screening Q&A I attended. Why did Zobel choose to cast a beautiful young woman in the role of Becky, instead of choosing an actress that was older or less traditionally physically attractive? Dreama Walker is by far the most traditionally attractive female figure in the primary cast. Personally, I feel the film would have been even more powerful if the victim had been someone older or less attractive or even if it had been a male. Considering that the character is the subject of sexual misconduct and assault and that the film features several shots of her scantily clad and topless, I walked out of the theater with an uneasy sense that there might be something to the charges of exploitation and titillation. But to the film’s credit that wasn’t the only uneasy feeling I left with. I was left with lots of thoughts about how I might have behaved in similar circumstances. Or how my young sons might someday respond if they were to find themselves in that kind of situation.