Film Review – Compliance

Compliance Movie PosterWriter/director Craig Zobel’s Compliance (2012) is disturbing, and that is the point. It is a stressful day from the start for Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged fast food manager. One of her employees left the freezer open, they are down on bacon and pickles, and it is Friday, one of their busiest days. The workers are complaining as only teenagers can about having more boyfriends than they know what to do with or that if they sleep in but then have to go to work they have no time to themselves. Sandra tries to fit in, talking about sexting with her boyfriend, but cannot be a buddy to her employees, simply because of her age and position. Her life gets more complicated when she gets a call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), informing her that Becky (Dreama Walker), her nineteen-year-old cashier, stole money from a customer. He asks Sandra to please take Becky in the back and question her.

During the beginning of this talk it seems relatively benign—just asking questions. Very quickly, however, it starts to get uncomfortable, and it is revealed to the audience that Daniels is a phony who is using the authority he claims to have to get Sandra and Becky to do what he wants. Daniels plays it smart, first simply asking very leading questions to get information to seem like he is legitimate, and then using this position to bully and praise the individuals. As time moves on, Daniels is able to get his victims to go to more and more extremes, all supposedly to help the police and also help Becky avoid jail time. This includes getting Becky to strip, so she can be searched for the stolen money.

Watching this in the theater, many people in the audience laughed in disbelief at what this man on the phone was able to make these people do. It was a nervous laughter. Part of you cannot help wondering what would you do in this situation. As viewers, we know what the movie is about, but as a person on the scene talking with an authority figure? We would all like to believe that we would see through this type of ruse—and many would. But after all, the idea of disobeying the police is a scary thought for anyone.

Compliance 1

What sells this film is the way the characters react to Daniels. Ann Dowd as Sandra is especially convincing as she tries to make sense of what is going on. She wants to do the right thing and many times gives Becky choices, trying to make what she thinks is a police investigation go easier while also simply trying to do her job. She is obviously a hard worker, but is in over her head. She’s also always pleased to hear “Officer Daniels” say how well she is doing and how dedicated she is. It fuels her ego and makes her feel important in a job that gives her little chance to feel that way.

Dreama Walker as Becky has less to show, but is equally as important. Daniels talks with her as well as with the older adults, informing her about why they are doing this. He speaks with an authority that any young person in a situation she doesn’t understand might be willing to go along with, just hoping it will end sooner. As time goes on and Becky is more and more within the power of Daniels and the people who are watching her, she becomes more susceptible to their demands.

Compliance 2

The way to judge this film is not through enjoyment level, but in how well it presents the material and the situation to us. It does this very well. Besides the horror of what is happening to Becky, there are several co-workers who question what is happening and even make attempts to get more information, but many are too scared to make a direct plea for the events to stop. The different mentalities are on full display, giving a well-rounded look at how authority and uncomfortable situations affect people. And there is no way to enjoy what the viewer sees.

Compliance shows an aspect of human nature that has existed for a long time, and how it can come out. The fact that it is based on true events makes the actions that much more disturbing, as it is revealed that this is not an isolated incident and has happened at numerous restaurants across the country. There are points that go beyond anything that seem legitimate for a police officer to ask, and very early on. Yet these things happen, and that is the main point that the movie is getting at. This has happened, and will sadly probably happen again.

Final Grade: B+


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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