Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Big Review: "Compliance"

Reach out and torment someone: Pat Healy in Compliance
My two cents on one of 2012's most controversial movies. I also think it's one of the year's best. Here's my review for ICON, which is reprinted with permission.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Is this torture porn or a look at who we really are? 


I JUST KNEW IT was going to happen,” says the young woman (Dreama Walker) victimized by a prank call that festers into an abomination in Craig Zobel’s masterpiece of discomfort, Compliance. That quote doesn’t just refer to the film’s central incident.

The story, based on true events, unfolds at an Ohio fast food restaurant managed by the middle-aged Sandra (Ann Dowd), whose approach to life is to get along. The delivery guy screams at her, Sandra apologizes to him. Fifteen hundred dollars in food gets spoiled—someone didn’t close the freezer door—and the staff gets off with more of a plea than a warning. Self-respect left Sandra’s world years ago, probably after her first argument. Her words to boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) say it all, “Just don’t get too drunk.” Sandra would qualify as a doormat if she weren’t so afraid of scuffing your shoes.

That makes her a perfect, unwitting henchman. On the eve of the dinner rush, an Officer Daniels calls the restaurant saying that Becky (Walker) stole money from a customer. The call is odd from the start. You would think that the police officer would visit the restaurant and talk to witnesses. But he sounds convincing enough, and he has Sandra’s boss on hold. Sandra tells Becky about the charges, which she fervently denies. It’s caught on tape, the officer says. There are two options. Becky can come down to the station or she can agree to a strip search right there.

Becky is incredulous; Sandra is skeptical. But the officer knows exactly what to say to the manager: “I have to take the full responsibility on this.” Sandra has no time to ask questions. It’s a busy night and a secret shopper may come in. Plus, her boss and the police have every- thing covered. It’s out of her hands now.

Over the course of several hours, the prank caller (Pat Healy, The Innkeepers) takes his power out for a spin. He has Sandra deposit Becky’s clothes in her car, spins a story about the girl’s involvement in a drug deal, and even involves poor Van. Everyone plays along, be- cause the caller knows he’s dealing with powerless people. Work in the service industry for five minutes—I sold books at Borders, ripped concert tickets, and punched register keys at a multiplex—and you know that “the customer is always right” isn’t just a credo; it’s a “kick me” sign that is permanently affixed to your back.

Firmly connected in the day-to-day, nothing feels preposterous in Compliance. A large part has to deal with the acting. Dowd’s agonizing, complex performance doesn’t paint Sandra as dumb or brainwashed. She’s just so used to acquiescence that it’s become as normal as breathing. We can hear the yearning for acceptance in her voice. Healy, gleeful and slick, is profoundly unsettling, which is amazing since we rarely see him.

Dowd and Healy flourish because writer-director Zobel treats us with intelligence. He em- braces ambiguity, so we feel sorry for Sandra even as she counts Becky’s escalating humilia- tion as a job well done. The titillating aspects get handled with a clinical detachment. Zobel’s goal is to show that this event wasn’t the result of a bizarre series of circumstances. It came from real life. The movie’s washed out color schemes, its repeated images of small-town mis- ery (parking lots, snow drifts), and shots filled with sad, weathered faces speak of a world where it’s best to keep your head down.

Zobel doesn’t amplify. The tension in Compliance comes from simple things: the bub- bling of a fryer interrupting the endless quiet; Heather McIntosh’s score reinforcing the film’s grim inevitability, a Greek tragedy with nametags. Zobel relishes not showing us what’s be- hind the curtain. We never fully understand the background behind Healy’s character, making his actions all the more maddening. When does this deviant say enough is enough? And the fact that we only see Walker topless is more than Zobel showing good taste. Piecing together the possibilities on our own is infinitely more terrifying than seeing them.

What Zobel wants us to see is Sandra. She has spent so much time pleasing others and following orders that she can no longer speak for herself. “I did what I was told to do,” she says afterward. The great tragedy of Compliance isn’t that Sandra cannot tell her side of the story. It’s how many of us are in the same position and don’t even know it. We accept our roles, unaware that a willingness to follow the script shapes us—and the lives of others. Weakness is a destructive weapon we’re all carrying. [R]  

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