Sundance 2012: COMPLIANCE Review

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In recent memory, only last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene made my skin crawl and stomach turn like Compliance.  In some ways, Compliance is far worse since it goes beyond two people and instead casts an accusatory finger at humanity and asks, “How easily can you be tricked into dehumanizing another person?”  Craig Zobel‘s incredible script and brilliant direction slowly puts you in a chokehold until you’re struggling to breathe and begging to be let go.  Compliance is almost impossibly difficult to endure and it only eases up when Zobel makes a minor mistake in casting, explanation, or resolution.  But these are small missteps in a film that sickens you to your core.  And then it gets worse when you remember that the story is based on true events.

On a busy day at a fast food restaurant, a man claiming to be a police officer, “Officer Daniels (Pat Healy)”, calls the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), and informs her that an employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money out of a customer’s purse.  A voice on a telephone is able to get Sandra, Sandra’s boyfriend Van (Bill Camp), and Becky to bend to his commands through an unnerving talent for manipulation and ability to exploit the fears and egos of his prey.  Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, Daniels has Becky subjected to a series of humiliating and abusive acts, and he’s never even in the room.

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Only until it begins to reach the end does Compliance have to rely on contrivance.  It is a masterful script where every word has been carefully chosen in order for the audience to believe that someone could be controlled by a voice claiming to be a police officer.  Some are able to refuse the “officer”, but the illusion of his authority is usually enough to keep someone talking.  There may be hesitation, but Daniels knows how to dodge questions, turn them to his advantage, build people up, and tear them down.  Zobel then uses his direction to push the claustrophobia of the situation.  He uses uncomfortable close-ups at odd angles, the sparse score is aggressive and sinister, we almost never leave Sandra’s office, and we rarely go outside the restaurant.  The movie is a vice grip where we’ve become trapped with Becky and begging to escape this nightmare.  Zobel won’t let us.

We can try to convince ourselves that we’re not so stupid to fall for this ruse.  We wouldn’t do every single thing Daniels says.  We would make the officer come down to the restaurant.  That’s what we’d like to think, but it’s not a matter of intelligence or objectivity.  Zobel forces us to seriously consider how we would act in that situation, not how we would like to act.  Any attempt to brush off the characters as stupid is simply a futile attempt to look away, but deep down we know how easily our psychology can be used against us.

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Dowd, Walker, and Healy perfectly understand how psychology can be twisted and turned.  Dowd unapologetically shows the common weakness of someone like Sandra, a woman whose job is based on following the instructions of an authority, but who also has the power to control people beneath her.  Walker does an admirable job playing the doe-eyed victim, and while she makes us feel the terror of Becky, Zobel should have gone with someone with plainer looks.  Walker is incredibly attractive and the things she’s forced to do come off as a bit exploitative.

But Healy has the most crucial role and he absolutely nails it.  Zobel wrote an amazing screenplay, but Healy acts it perfectly and does it all through his voice.  He has no way to physically confront his puppets and Daniels knows he doesn’t need it.  His lies are a foundation upon which to lay a grotesque monument to his ruthless ego.  It’s another layer to theme of how easy it is for one person to dehumanize abother.

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Compliance starts to stumble at the end when it starts taking shortcuts and offering resolutions it doesn’t need.  Like Daniels’ dialogue, a false word can’t stand and a false moment must be turned into truth.  For almost all of its punishing runtime, the movie inhabits a terrifyingly convincing evil.  There aren’t many people like Daniels in the world, but that’s not the point.  The point is forcing us to consider our friends and co-workers and wonder how much of a push it would take for us to betray them or for them to betray us.  Compliance is a disturbing, unrelenting reminder of how easy we are to break and how easily we can break each other.

Rating: A-

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here.  Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:




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  • Warpcrafter

    I have been in a situation similar to this, where a bossy stranger on the phone claiming to be a cop tried to get me to do what he wanted without any proof. I insisted that he deal with me in person repeatedly until he finally hang up, and that was the end of it. Some people are just weak.

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  • Jordan

    Just caught this film at the Seattle International Film Festival. I absolutely loved it and agreed with your review, especially when you were talking about how we should decipher between what we WOULD do and what we’d LIKE TO THINK we’d do. Big difference. Great movie.

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