When Compliance (2012) first began screening in festivals such as Sundance, it was extremely divisive. Some people hailed its presentation and courage whilst others lamented what was onscreen, walking out shouting ‘What is this shit’ and haranguing the director during Q and A’s. Now experiencing an extremely limited cinematic run here in Australia, people can make up there own minds.

After all the hype I had heard about the film, I was really quite apprehensive walking into it and it pretty much lived up to that. Despite not being particularly explicit, Compliance is one of the most unsettling viewing experiences I have had for a very long time. The first thing that the film tells you is that it is based on a true story. Actually it doesn’t just tell you, it screams the news at you, with a huge “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” plastered onscreen at the very start. I think this is important actually, because I have heard the criticism made of the film that it entirely hinges on you not being able to believe that this could actually have happened. A criticism I find to be utterly absurd, because the film tells you straight up it did happen, leaving no suspense in that regard. The film takes place on a typical night at a typical (yet fictional) fast food outlet. I have to say, one thing the film does nail is the utter fuckin banality of working at a fast food joint. I been there. The story sees a young employee of the store called Becky accused of theft by a phone caller purporting to be a police officer. Throughout the course of the film, he manages to get the manager of the store, and others, to strip search her, punish her and much more. This stringing along of the workers in the store gets increasingly disturbing and does expose some pretty large plot holes (albeit ones that may have there basis in fact).

Dreama Walker, who gives an incredible performance in Compliance

Dreama Walker, who gives an incredible performance in Compliance

The performance out of Compliance that has been getting the most plaudits is from Ann Dowd as Sandra the manager of the takeaway joint. I think that by far the best performance though is from Dreama Walker, as Becky the victim of the story, who is phenomenal in a really difficult role. I had not seen Walker in anything before, but I think she has been in some American TV shows previously. The manner in which she conveys the silent, terrified vulnerability of a teenager plunged into an utterly crazy, sexually manipulative situation is really quite effecting. I actually thought that Ann Dowd as Sandra was quite poor in the early parts of the film, but there is no denying she improves as it goes along. But Dreama Walker was still the clear standout for me. The film should be applauded for its pacing, not being afraid to take its time in telling the story. Some of the effect of this pacing is actually quite incredible, at times it made me actually feel pretty physically wretched, with the methodical way it shows horrific abuse. It also manages to nail the rhythm of phone calls, which so often does not work on screen. Here the back and forth is perfect, with people occasionally even talking over each other, just as they do in real life.

Thematically I think in some ways the film is an interesting counterpoint to another film I reviewed not so long ago, Serpico (1973), in that both films are concerned with how we view people in positions of power. This film is more about the nature of authority and how people wield it. The prank caller continually re-states the fact that “I’m the police officer”.  By flashing his badge so to speak, he is able to make people bow to his will, despite the fact that surely many if not all of them, recognise in isolation just how wrong what they are doing is. Titles get you so far in our contemporary world. This man is just able to demand that people call him sir and officer. Simply by managing to do that, he is able to utterly placate them (most of them anyway).  I feel the film also explores a second main theme and that is the way that minimum wage employees are treated in countries like America and Australia. I know that the sexual assault of an employee is an extreme example, but it does happen, and moreover is representative of many of the other abuses wrought on people in these jobs. I think that the reaction of the store manager Sandra, is actually pretty believable. Many people in these roles think the worst of those who work under them and give them absolutely no credit. And in large part, this hierarchical status system is what causes Sandra to act this way to a young employee in her care.

Ann Dowd, who plays the manager of the fast food shop

Ann Dowd, who plays the manager of the fast food shop

Compliance is one of those difficult films to recommend because it is so hard to watch and in this case also definitely has its flaws. The goings on are utterly absurd in many ways, despite the fact that they really did happen. Therein is probably the major strength of the film. Bringing the dark undercurrents, which we wish did not exist, that plague our society to the surface.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

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14 responses

  1. Nice review man. Been itching to see this but don’t know if and when it’s going to get any kind of release over here.

    1. It is only getting a tiny one over here too. Just sort of popped up out of nowhere, with no hype or advertising. Pretty limited run too. Hopefully you will get the chance to check it out.

  2. I agree, it’s hard to recommend and even harder to review. While I couldn’t believe the gullibility of the characters, the movie was quite fascinating. Nice review man.

    1. I’m with you guys – I watched this a week or so ago and can’t figure out how to talk about it…

      1. Yeah, it’s good but it’s stupid.

      2. It is a little like that aye. Possibly easier to talk to someone who has also seen it. But trying to interpret it for a broad audience was difficult.

    1. Cheers Fernando. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Its a ridiculous ‘movie’, and as soon as the call comes you tell the police you will do what they want when they arrive. But as you say, you need to remind yourself that this actually happened, 70 times!! INSANE 🙂

    1. I know, that’s the rather intriguing thing about it. People dismiss the film as being idiotic, but it is an examination of things that actually went on. And that’s part of what I think makes it really interesting. It seems stupid that the guy can just say ‘I’m the cop’ and everyone does whatever he asks, no matter how insane. But that’s what went down.

      1. Definitely, so easy to say its terrible, and it wouldnt happen, but it did, so many times, and thats for sure the most fascinating thing! 🙂

  4. Yeah, this was one of those films that left me unsure what to think. It was definitely well done, and I thought all of the performances were strong, as well as the script and directing, but it left me unsure what to think about the actual film, and story overall. It felt kind of strange watching it. But I agree that it’s definitely not impossible for something like this to occur, however unlikely it may be.

    1. Yeah I totally agree. All those elements you mention are really good. But somehow it does not add up to a completely satisfying experience. Perhaps it is just because it is so unsettling to watch. Not sure.

      Thanks for commenting.

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