Revisiting ‘Compliance’: Craig Zobel’s chilling, controversial and commanding feature film
Craig Zobel’s low-budget thriller Compliance caused plenty of controversy on the international film festival circuit when it was first released, its premiere at Sundance was met by jeers, walkouts and a rather heated discussion during the infamous Q&A session which has gone down in history as one of the most contentious cinematic debates.
Based on true events (most notably an incident at McDonald’s, Mount Washington, Kentucky in April 2004), the film offers an insight into the true story of Lisa Ogborn renamed here as Becky; a female fast-food employee who was subjected to dehumanising acts and sexual assault after a man posing as a police officer phoned the restaurant and instructed fellow employees to carry out a strip search investigation.
At first, such an event seems impossible but, as Zobel highlights, it’s not the villain’s actions, something which was believed to be based on the Stanford & Millgram experiments that are solely to blame, but rather the blind obedience and weakness of Becky’s co-workers who allow such an atrocity to occur.
In particular, Becky’s manager Sandra (played by Ann Dowd) who, after realising the restaurant has lost $1,500 of bacon overnight, is under extreme pressure to ensure nothing else can go wrong, especially since a ‘mystery shopper’ visit is imminent. The underlying tones of authoritative pressure within corporate society rest heavily on Sandra’s conscious and ultimately could be perceived as the trigger behind her willingness to co-operate with such demands. Caught off-guard, she receives a phone call from a man named ‘Officer Daniels’ who describes an employee Sandra identifies as Becky whom he believes to have stolen money from a customer. After fooling Sandra into believing he has spoken to her regional manager, Officer Daniels convinces Sandra to lock Becky in a stockroom and begins a serious of assertive demands masked behind his lawful status.
Despite the unsettling context of Compliance, Zobel never looks to exploit Becky’s trauma and, instead, his film paints a dark portrait of working-class middle America, allowing his camera to focus on surroundings awash with the alienation of a corporate society and fast food consumerism. During one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Zobel cuts to an unassuming dirty sink, the dripping of a tap and a used straw. By diverting the camera away from such events a deeper underlying sense of dread forms, shades of Haneke and Van Sant’s work are clearly present and comparisons to Cache and Elephant would not be unjust.
Although Zobel clearly marks himself as one to watch here, Compliance contains some solid performances throughout. Dreama Walker brings an innocence to Becky which you can’t help sympathising with but it’s Ann Dowd as Sandra who really steals the show. Although her blind obedience is arguably to blame for such an incident taking place, it’s difficult not to feel some kind of alignment to her position. Her final line: “I just did what anyone else would do in that situation” is perhaps the films most chilling moment, a statement that no matter how much you try to deny could well be true.
Despite being over ten years since the crime took place, Compliance offers nothing new to an event which has been heavily dissected in numerous documentaries over the years. No real closure is obtained, the caller’s motifs are never explained and this will divide and frustrate audiences on what the film’s purpose actually is. Instead, Compliance offers a social commentary on the shortcomings of human vulnerability and the fear of insubordination to a higher authority, its a film to provoke discussion not evoke enjoyment.