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).
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.
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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