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Becky and Sandra aren't the best of friends. Sandra is a middle-aged manager at a fast-food restaurant; Becky is a teenaged counter girl who really needs the job. One stressful day (too many customers and too little bacon), a police officer calls, accusing Becky of stealing money from a customer's purse, which she vehemently denies. Sandra, overwhelmed by her managerial responsibilities, complies with the officer's orders to detain Becky. This choice begins a nightmare that tragically blurs the lines between expedience and prudence, legality and reason.
For more about Compliance and the Compliance Blu-ray release, see Compliance Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on January 15, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: Craig Zobel
Writer: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson
» See full cast & crew
Compliance Blu-ray Review
A fast-food thriller that's hard to digest.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, January 15, 2013
I can't remember the last time I saw a film that was so involving and frustrating and terrifying all at once. You know how theater audiences will sometimes audibly yell out warnings and to the imperiled female protagonist of a scary movie, wandering without a flashlight into the woods? Compliance is a little like that, but its horrors are much more real. Midway through, you'll be screaming at the screen, maybe even grabbing the sides of your head in disbelief at what's taking place. Even the notes I took while watching the film devolved into blathering all-caps statements of incredulity:
If this were a strictly fictional movie, I just couldn't buy the actions of the characters. But here's the thing; Compliance is based quite closely on an elaborate real-life crime that took place in 2004 at a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. The incident—and the film— uneasily reveal the human tendency to cow to authority, to obey without question, even when it results in the suffering of another person.
The film is set at a busy "ChickWich"—think Chick-fil-A, but dingier—somewhere in suburban Ohio. Harried middle-aged manager Sandra (longtime character actress Ann Dowd) has a fast-food shitstorm on her hands; the Friday lunch rush is on, whoever closed the night before forgot to shut the freezer door—spoiling $1,500 worth of bacon—and she's expecting corporate to send a "secret shopper" that night to evaluate the quality of the franchise's service. If this weren't enough, she gets a phone call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who's investigating a claim that petite blonde cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer's purse. He also says he has Sandra's regional manager on the other line. For Sandra, the stakes are high—her job is almost certainly at risk.
Becky adamantly denies the accusations, and Sandra wants to believe her, but on the other end of the phone, Daniels counters with, "Isn't that what a thief would say?" He's good at these kinds of subtle manipulations, alternately playing good cop and bad cop to get his desired results. He semi- deputizes Sandra to deal with the situation until he can arrive, and tells her to sequester Becky in the back room. It's a reasonable demand, but Daniels' orders quickly become more questionable. And aye, there's the rub—no one ever questions them. Not when he asks Sandra to perform a strip search. Not when he requests that she put Becky's clothes in a ziplock bag and take them out to her car, leaving the accused employee exposed, with only an apron to cover her. Not when he convinces Sandra's fiancé, Van (Bill Camp), to get the naked girl to do jumping jacks. It only gets worse, spiraling downward from sexual humiliation to outright assault. And yet no one asks to speak with Daniels' supervisor or otherwise get proof that he is who he says he is.
This is a difficult film to watch, not least of which because the characters behave in baffling ways that are seemingly contrary to common sense. But psychological experimentation has consistently shown that common sense—and common decency—goes right out the window when people under duress are given commands by an authority figure. Writer/director Craig Zobel has named as a key inspiration the controversial 1961 Milgram Experiment at Yale, in which test subjects were ordered to give increasingly painful electric shocks to another participant, an actor who wasn't really being zapped. Sixty-five percent of subjects dutifully followed orders all the way to the end of the experiment—though not without significant moral misgivings—when they were told to administer three final 450-volt shocks in series. It's easy to say "I would never do that" when watching Compliance, but the odds just aren't in favor of this being the case.
The film is double torture for us, since we identify with both Becky, who unresistingly suffers invasive indignities, and her coworker captors, who—against their consciences and better judgements—blindly follow orders. You want to scream at all of them, "Snap out of it! Do the right thing! Can't you see this is ridiculous?" This is not a film to be enjoyed, but rather, one to be endured, in both complicitness and hand-wringing empathy. That's not to say it isn't well-made. Compliance is so effectively horrifying because Zobel grounds the picture in the believably mundane. The fluorescent-lit food-service interiors. Sandra's bossy harping and simultaneous need to be liked by her employees. The chatter and curiosity of the crew, unsure of what's happening back in Sandra's office. If the film's anyone can become a torturer premise is hard to swallow, Zobel at least coats it in a realistically greasy fast food detail, making it go down a bit easier.
It also helps that the acting is on point, which is important considering the way each main character is progressively broken over the course of the film. As Becky, Dreama Walker goes from a chipper, boy-obsessed young twentysomething to a blank-eyed husk of a woman in 90 minutes. Bill Camp— playing drunk, worried about possible DUI charges if he doesn't cooperate—allows himself to go to a dark place and then emerges as weirdly sympathetic when he admits, "I did a bad thing." And Ann Down—who self-financed a campaign for an Oscar nomination she didn't get but probably deserved—generates a complex mix of emotions as she fails to see what's happening and then refuses to take responsibility.
Compliance Blu-ray, Video Quality
Compliance was shot digitally with the Arriflex D-21 camera system, and the material transfers easily to Blu-ray, with a 1080p/AVC encode that's easy on the eyes. This low-budget picture may not have the most striking cinematography you'll see this year—it takes place almost entirely in a single location, after all—but the picture here is generally sharp and well-graded and presumably true-to-intent. Clarity is consistently strong, revealing fine facial and clothing details, and color is realistic but slightly intensified, with punchy contrast and consistent skin tones. You may notice some of the usual culprits in low-budget digital filmmaking—a few instances of mild aliasing on tight patterns, some blown-out highlights, elevated source noise in darker scenes—but nothing persistent or egregious. Neither is there any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement. An all-around faithful, good- looking transfer, with no real distractions.
Compliance Blu-ray, Audio Quality
You can probably guess that Compliance is very much a dialogue-driven experience, so it should come as no surprise that the focus of the film's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is the clean, clear reproduction of the actors' voices. But that's not all there is to it. The rear channels are used quietly but effectively for ambience—from dining room clatter and clamor to fries in the frier—and there are occasional impressionistic effects, like strange garbled voices emanating from the surround speakers. The most memorable audio aspect of the film, though, is the unsettling cello score by Heather McIntosh, an indie music all-star who was part of the Athens, Georgia-based Elephant Six collective and has since performed with everyone from Cat Power to Gnarls Barkley. I believe this is her first film score, but I imagine she'll be getting a lot of future work based on this haunting piece for chamber strings.
For those that may need or want them, the disc includes optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Compliance Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Compliance Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Compliance is an unnerving psychological experiment in cinematic form, testing what the characters will do and how much we, as an audience, can endure. (In this, it reminds me a bit of Michael Haneke's Funny Games.) It's not what I'd call an enjoyable film—it's certainly not fun—but it is thought-provoking and personally involving. If there's one film that will make you yell at the screen this year, in frustration or disbelief, this is it. Magnolia's Blu-ray release is solid in the audio/video departments, but the lack of substantive special features and the general nature of the subject matter—this probably isn't a movie you'll feel like watching more than once—lead me to recommend a rental.
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