Review of Compliance

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Based on a true story, when a prank caller convinces a fast food restaurant manager to interrogate an innocent young employee, no-one is left unharmed. Starring Dreama Walker, James McCaffrey & Pat Healy.
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Movie Reviews: "Compliance" --

Rating: R (language and sexual content/nudity)
Length: 90 minutes
Release date: August 17, 2012
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Stars: 3 out of 5

The new film "Compliance" by director Craig Zobel has been heavily praised as both a disturbing film and an important one. While the disturbing bit may drive away some filmgoers, the movie is so riveting in its intensity that viewers are glued to their seats until the very last frame. The importance lies in the subject matter of a film that challenges the audience's views on authority and blind obedience to the law.

"Compliance" is a dramatic film based on a true story involving a series of prank calls made to fast-food franchises and grocery stores over a period of a decade until the suspected caller's arrest in 2004. During these pranks, the caller impersonated a police detective in search of stolen goods, with one of the workers being a suspect in the theft. Using the authority that the managers of the restaurants assumed he had, he frightened the restaurant managers into performing a strip search of female employees right there on the premises. The prankster was eventually acquitted of all charges.

The film brings to startling life one of the prankster's calls, based on a 2004 incident in Kentucky. It shows in stark realism just how devastating the prank was to the participants, whether it was an employee stripped or a manager following the caller's instructions.

The film begins with the mysterious phone call to a fast-food restaurant located in the Ohio suburbs. The caller speaks with authority, identifying himself as a police officer to the restaurant's manager Sandra, played by Ann Dowd, who appeared in the film "Garden State." Dowd is informed that one of the restaurant's employees, Becky, played by Dreama Walker, is suspected of stealing money from a customer. Unable to come to the restaurant in person, the voice over the phone asks the manager to help him with his investigation.

The manager ensures the officer that she's willing to do what's needed, though Becky proclaims her innocence throughout. From this promise made to an unknown caller, Sandra begins to follow each instruction given by the officer.
Sandra's actions throughout the rest of the film are inconceivable to most viewers. She follows the phoned-in directions to the letter, regardless of her increasing misgivings. The investigation begins with the illegal detainment of Becky, followed by a humiliating series of steps that result in a devastated worker, remorseful manager and an audience asking the common question of why didn't any of the participants say no.

That questioning is at the center of the controversy surrounding the movie. The action on the screen is gut-wrenching, as audience members can't help but place themselves into the shoes of the young worker. Dreama Walker plays Becky, and her performance is absolutely brilliant. Her acting is spot on, with a believable naiveté that makes viewers ache for her situation while at the same time growing angry that she doesn't simply say no to the increasingly perverse demands being made of her.

Dowd is wonderful as the stress-filled manager Sandra, as well. She comes off as overwhelmed but is willing to follow the implicit authority of the officer on the phone. With every step she takes, though, her character becomes less understandable. Viewers question just how far she is willing to go based on the weak authority given by a caller's voice.

As the film progresses and becomes darker, the question of how far are they willing to go is asked of other characters involved in the investigation as well. From Walker's coworker Kevin, played by Phillip Ettinger, to the deeply disturbing Van, Sandra's boyfriend, played by Bill Camp, each is given a choice about how far they're willing to go to comply with authority. Throughout it all, none of the characters are portrayed as completely amoral or evil. Even Van, who eventually sexually abuses Walker's character, shows deep remorse for his actions, which helps humanize him even while his actions demonize him.

Zobel directs "Compliance" in a way that makes the unbelievable-but-true story hard to dismiss. He brings the viewers into the story skillfully, with the help of a cast that manages to build depth to their characters, avoiding the creation of paper-thin caricatures. Sandra and Van come across as fully complicit in their abusive activity, no matter how reluctant they are, while Brenda can be said to be equally as complicit by putting up with the abuse.

The act of compliance to authority is at the center of the film. It leads ultimately to a question of who precisely are the victims. Brenda is easy to see as a victim, because of the abuse, but Zobel leaves the rest of the cast to the viewers to condemn or pardon, according to their own actions and motives. The fact that viewers have been known to do both may make this one of the most interesting films of the year.