‘Compliance’ is chilling and unnerving everyday horror

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Written and directed by Craig Zobel

USA, 2012

The incident has happened more than 70 times in 30 different states in the U.S.: a man claiming to be a police officer calls a fast-food restaurant and tells the manager that one of the female employees has been accused of a theft. He instructs the manager to strip-search the woman and perform all manner of punishments upon her, some of them sexual in nature. The manager performs them without dispute. Why? There is no easy answer, but Craig Zobel’s new film Compliance makes for a chilling and unnerving exploration of the question.

Here the manager is Sandra (Ann Dowd), facing a stressful Friday night at an Ohio franchise in the fictional ChickWich chain. The employee is Becky (Dreama Walker), called in for an overtime shift on her off day. The early scenes in the film are intriguing in how they establish the rules of compliance for these characters: the conditions under which they will obey an order and when they won’t, the ways that other people in their lives demand from them, the responsibilities that they feel or don’t feel to the people around them.

Then the call begins, and the movie quickly becomes disturbing. Long before the Caller (Pat Healy) is revealed to be a hoax, the audience will sense something wrong; long before the punishments turn sexual, it will seem that both Sandra and Becky are being violated. Zobel uses a number of close-up shots of the greasy realities of the fast-food business to establish the true intimacy of the crime – the Caller uses the predictable drudgery of their everyday lives to read them so well that he might as well have telepathy. There has never been a clearer demonstration of the concept that rape is much less about actual sex acts and much more about power.

On the other hand, that clarity may make Compliance a difficult watch. It’s essentially a slow-motion train wreck of rape, an extended sexual assault where the physical acts are being committed by characters who are themselves experiencing a gradual violation. This is a horror film, make no mistake, and the lack of blood spilled does not reduce its intensity in any way. The actors do fine work in letting the decisions show on their faces, of conveying the strange space where they are making a choice and yet believing they have no choice, but the process of the violations themselves may be too intense for some. Indeed, Zobel was greeted by a mixture of boos and applause at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Part of the reason people booed this film is that it’s a difficult film to believe. Not because it feels too false, but because it feels too true, so true that audiences would prefer to deny that it could ever be themselves in Sandra’s or Becky’s shoes. It’s easier to assume that these characters are all foolish or gullible. Zobel ties the entire film up with its best scene, in which Sandra tries to make those same denials herself. Once confronted with the truth, her only retreat is back to the very place where the Caller found her so easy to exploit.

-Mark Young

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