By Don Simpson | August 16, 2012
Director: Craig Zobel
Writer: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Matt Servitto, Ashlie Atkinson, Nikiya Mathis, Ralph Rodriguez, Stephen Payne, Amelia Fowler
During the opening scene of writer-director Craig Zobel’s Compliance, an irritated delivery man (Matt Servitto) exclaims to Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of ChickWich, “you are fucked without bacon!” You see, a freezer door was accidentally left open overnight and most of ChickWich’s supplies have gone rancid. Luckily Sandra was able to get a rush delivery to replace most of the spoiled ingredients before their lunch rush, but can ChickWich survive an entire business day without the ingredients that could not be replaced, such as bacon and pickles?
The worries of a bacon-less and pickle-less day at Chickwich quickly dissolve into the ether when Sandra receives a phone call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) informing her that one of her employees — a cute, 19-year-old blonde named Becky (Dreama Walker) — is in a pickle of her own. You see, Becky has been fingered by a recent ChickWich customer as a thief. (It must be Monday, because crappy days like this one only happen on Mondays, right?) Until Officer Daniels and his team can get to ChickWich to apprehend the suspect, it is Sandra’s appointed responsibility to keep Becky locked up in the back room. From this point on, the disembodied voice of Officer Daniels proceeds to conduct an interrogation of Becky by masterfully puppeteering the employees of ChickWich. Transferring his authority as a police officer to various fast food civilians, Officer Daniels utilizes the persuasive power of his position to get precisely what he needs out of Becky.
Compliance is an intriguing conversation starter on the manipulative power and control of authority figures. For all the Chickwich staff knows, Officer Daniels is just a voice on the other end of the telephone line barking orders at them; yet, never once does Sandra or any of her staff attempt to verify Officer Daniels’ credentials. It seems pretty ridiculous, huh? Of course most of us probably believe that we would just say no if we found ourselves in this situation…but how many of us would actually question a police officer’s judgment or motives? When given permission by an authority figure, how many of us would take full advantage of our newly found power? Then, there are the gender dynamics of power struggles… Would a male who is placed in a position of power treat an attractive young woman differently than a female would in the same position of power? On the flip-side of things, what about Becky’s personal freedoms? Is it not Becky’s prerogative to be considered innocent until proven guilty in court?
Besides guaranteeing some very heated post-screening debates on human psychology, Compliance serves up some really tasty acting performances. Ann Dowd is masterfully conflicted and confused as Sandra, so much so that seems like it might be a bit too heavy-handed for Zobel to drown Sandra in such a shit storm of a day. Did Sandra really need to begin the day with the freezer snafu while simultaneously stressing over the possibility of a mystery shopper visiting her location? It is as if her horrendous day is intended to give Sandra an excuse for her behavior; because of all of the stress she is under, Sandra is obviously not thinking clearly. The same goes for Sandra’s boyfriend Van (Bill Camp), who is heard early on in the film asking Sandra for permission to go out drinking with his buddies. Even Sandra voices her opinion that Van’s phone call is unnecessary, but again it is deemed necessary for the audience to understand that Van is drunk when he shows up at ChickWich later that evening. Van is therefore given an excuse for his behavior — his inhibitions are lowered. These two characters raise questions regarding the effects of stress and alcohol (or drugs) on situations such as the one we find in Compliance. What would have happened if Sandra was having a great day when Officer Daniels called Chickwich? Would she have been able to think through the situation more clearly and logically?
Oh, and don’t worry, I am not going to point out that Becky is too naturally beautiful to be a cashier for a fast food chain. That would be incredibly condescending to fast food workers, who are already working in some of the most thankless (and underpaid) jobs in the whole US of A; gross over-generalizations regarding their physical appearance would be in very poor taste. As for Becky being the most attractive worker at this particular ChickWich location — well, I believe that is exactly why she is targeted. (Of course, this depends heavily upon whether or not you believe the predator stalked out the ChickWich location beforehand. I believe that he did.) Besides, something I really appreciate about Zobel’s approach to filming Becky is that he never exploits her, even though he has countless opportunities to do just that. In fact, by his choice of camera angles and framing, it is abundantly clear that Zobel is purposefully avoiding any overt sexualization of the situation. It also helps that Dreama Walker handles her character with a great deal of restraint. In Walker’s hands, Becky comes off as the most realistic character in Compliance.
Last, but certainly not least… Pat Healy. I love Healy, I really do. He is amazing in The Innkeepers and he is pitch-perfect in Compliance. There are few actors who could have pulled this role off so effectively while merely being a disembodied voice. That said, I would have definitely preferred if Zobel kept Officer Daniels’ identity concealed until much later in the narrative. By showing us Officer Daniels when he does, Zobel totally changes the tone of the story from a true crime thriller to a demented psychological study. For me, this narrative tactic definitely lessens the thrill of it all; but again, this is something that will probably be debated among cinema-goers after screenings of Compliance.