Written and Directed By: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, and Ashlie Atkinson.
Director of Photography: Adam Stone, Editor: Jane Rizzo, Production Designer: Matthew Munn, Original Music: Heather McIntosh.
When the words “Based on a True Story” flash right at the start of the independent horror film Compliance, it’s not just informing us we’re into something ripped from the headlines. The text fills the screen in jarring type font and larger-than-life letters. This isn’t just a note; it’s a shield against criticism. One which allows the filmmakers to exploit and milk their story for all it's worth.
Compliance isn’t the worst movie of the year by any standards—it’s too competently made and well-performed by its cast—but it’s easily the most enragingly misguided in its portrayal of working class society. It’s a film that plays out a horror scenario to its fullest, based on the premise that those who live in small town America are simply too stupid, too scared, and too lacking in self-worth to question authority. And further than that, it’s narrative structure is so poorly conceived that for writer/director Craig Zobel to make this film from what clearly seems like a perspective of privilege speaks to his moral turpitude.
For those modestly curious at this point—what could this movie have that has clearly enraged Peter beyond his usual annoyances?—turn back now if you want to avoid spoilers. Compliance begins on an ordinary day at a fast food restaurant in Ohio. The film begins already in miserablism as Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the fast-food Chickwich, finds out she’s in trouble for the weekend when someone leaves the freezer door open, ruining the bacon and the pickles. Zobel’s frames go in for the close-ups on the food and dirty counters, telling us plainly “hey look how disgusting and de-humanizing it is to work here.” Eventually the rest of the crew comes into work, most notably the young and pretty Becky (Dreama Walker), a 19-year-old with no much on her mind except wanting to keep her job and the occasional boy.
But perhaps Becky is not as innocent as her blonde hair suggests, as Sandra gets a call from Officer Daniels, who informs her that Becky has stolen money out of a customer’s purse. Daniels puts Sandra in charge of keeping Becky in the back, searching her clothes and forcing her to strip down naked. But wait! Daniels isn’t a cop—just a sadistic prank caller. Only Sandra and Becky don’t know that, and things are only going to get worse from here. I had only heard rumblings of the story driving Compliance’s narrative, but it struck me as odd for Zobel to put this reveal so early in the narrative, which leaves the rest of the film heading toward to see how dumb and lacking in worth these people are. Compliance doesn’t just hint at its larger theme of questioning authority, its screams it. There’s constant talk of losing jobs and how close these peoples’ lives are to falling apart. Bullshit, I say.
In the latter half of Compliance, Sandra is too caught up in the “difficulties” of running the fast food restaurant to note that the police haven’t bothered showing up, nor to check on the men she has put in charge of watching Becky. Apparently Daniels is so convincing that Becky allows herself to be sexually assaulted. Zobel’s idea of this is to take the Hanake method — he never shows anything, so he’s not morally responsible. Of course, anyone who has watched a Hanake film knows his films are so much more horrifying because we are left to our own imagination and cannot help but envision the acts being suggested. And thus, Compliance IS exploitation even if it shows nothing. Its score, a series of ominous tones that suggest a wannabe Hitchcock vibe, also condescends into this tone.
Zobel has a clear vision, and as a filmmaker, he is more than confident at aping that Hanake style to create his desired effect. And he’s more than confident at getting great performances, especially Dowd, who plays her role with such frustrated innocence, its almost impossible not to feel some sympathy toward her. Except I don’t, because what Compliance suggests is that those at the bottom 1% are compliant in their own downfall, and as the film goes for its “how far can this man take it” vibe I felt more and more disgusted not with what it was showing us, but what it was suggesting about these characters and its world (a shot near the end with Officer Daniels might take the cake for the cheapest and most pointless reveal in a film this year).
Zobel has defended his movie behind his wall of truth, as the film mentions near the end 70 similar cases to this. The problem is that just saying a story is true doesn’t mean that your film is thus only a document of that truth (see: World Trade Center) I’m not sure there’s a way to make a non-exploitative version of Compliance (though some of my criticisms could have gone a long way) but I’m also not sure what the impetus for making the film necessarily is, especially with the privileged POV that Zobel takes. His film is built on a simple contrivance – “I would say something; wouldn’t you?” – that he answers with the most offensive purview of working-class culture since Reagan coined the term “welfare queens.”