Craig Zobel’s indie flick has generated a storm of controversy around the world, with multiple reports of walk-outs at screenings. But sadly it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.
The film is based on a jaw-dropping series of 70 prank call incidents that plagued North America for the best part of a decade. It draws the majority of its inspiration from the final incident in the shocking series of events – the 2004 Bullitt County McDonald’s Case, after which a man was finally arrested, although later acquitted. It’s material that’s primed for a rich, psychologically complex drama.
The film starts off brilliantly. The brilliant Ann Dowd plays pressurized fast-food manager Sandra – a woman not only forced to cope with insubordinate staff during the busiest day of the week but also a loss of bacon, the result of an employee failing to close the freezer door.
Zobel therefore sets things up tactfully, insidiously, the pressure-cooker environment of the restaurant, ChickWich, anticipating the paranoid horror to come (the none-too-subtle, repeated shots of chicken being fried reinforce this). The film’s visual aesthetic is clammy, antiseptic, detached – already we can feel ourselves both inching forward and recoiling, aware we’re about to be sucked into a nightmare but compelled nonetheless.
Sandra then gets a phone call from a man called Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). A persuasive sort, he convinces her that a young employee called Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer. Sandra, already frazzled from the day’s workload and the contempt in which she’s held by her young workers, is steadily drawn in – becoming a compliant and willing figure in an apparent police investigation. Gradually, Daniels induces Sandra to follow his step-by-step instructions, which involve bringing Becky to the back of the store and subjecting her to increasingly awful humiliation of a psychological and physical kind. But this is merely the start.
It should make for compelling material. But Compliance is, unfortunately, a movie that flies under the ‘based on true events’ banner without doing plumbing the depths that it should. There’s a moral duplicity involved – it’s as if we’re fed this angle just so that we don’t question what we’re seeing. Sadly, the lack of emotional engagement and conviction in the narrative means that’s exactly what we end up doing. In fact, there’s a bit of fudging right from the title cards which open the movie, with one saying ‘based on’, followed by another which says ‘inspired by’. Which is it? Is this an accurate portrayal or one that has been sensationalized? This lack of credibility proves as damaging to the film as the prank call is to its characters.
The really galling thing about the movie is that, for all its increasingly lurid twists and turns (which lean increasingly towards horrific sexual abuse as it progresses), the movie doesn’t tell us anything about human psychology. When Becky is forced to strip naked, the result of Daniels persuading Sandra to look for the money on her person, it feels like ugly shock tactics and titillation. Becky is examined and ogled by Zobel’s camera as she’s examined and ogled by Sandra (and, later, others) but there’s nothing behind it.
One can’t help wondering whether a documentary would have proven more effective, one in which the duplicitous gauze of apparent dramatic invention is removed altogether. It’s not as if Compliance doesn’t have a thesis. It just doesn’t go into anywhere near enough depth to justify what that thesis is.