views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Compliance (15)
The Courthouse
19th March 2013


When making a film inspired by real life, the tightrope between education and entertainment is a difficult one to walk. If it's not your story to tell, do you have the right to bring it to the big screen? And even if you have the right, are you right to do so?

The characters' names may be different, and the golden arches may have been swapped for the fictional ChickWich chain, but Compliance remains uncomfortably close to events that unfolded in Kentucky in 2004. In a horrific incident, a young fast-food server was the victim of a prank caller who persuaded her co-workers to humiliate her and her manager's fiancé to abuse her. But the even more uncomfortable truth is that whilst what happened to her sounds unbelievable, she wasn't the only one to suffer. There were more than 70 similar incidents in the decade leading up to her ordeal, and that's what makes director and writer Craig Zobel justified in continuing to draw attention to what happened.

If a policeman called your workplace and asked you nicely if you would strip search a co-worker because it was necessary and he couldn't get there to do it himself, how would you react? In the film, manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) doesn't question whether Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) is in fact who he says he is, rather focuses on the question of whether it's acceptable to carry out a degrading search of her employee, Becky (Dreama Walker). Sandra doesn't particularly get on with Becky, so when the policeman accuses the girl of stealing, it's not a giant leap for Sandra to instinctively side with the person seemingly in the greater position of authority. Once Sandra makes that decision, she is at peace with all that follows, having already made the hard call, and the situation rapidly escalates.

Dowd portrays Sandra as so full of self-importance, with a genuine belief that she is a good person, making her vulnerable to the caller's ridiculous flattery. It doesn't sound odd that a policeman would effectively want to deputise her after a five minute chat and not much more. Don't get me wrong, as an audience, we do hold Sandra responsible for what happens, but we don't believe she ever deliberately tries to harm Becky, that's the side effect, the cause is Sandra's flawed nature.

Walker puts in a brave performance as Becky, imbuing her character with all the emotions that make sense. Becky is at first outraged, upset, but ultimately, wholly compliant with what she is told to do. An inherent respect and fear for authority cripple Becky from getting herself out of the situation and when it rapidly gets out of control, she is too broken to react the way we desperately want to.

The cold, dark shots of the backroom where the film primarily takes place are interspersed with scenes of greasy food sizzling in the fryer and laughing customers wolfing down cheap chicken and fizzy pop. It brings home just how insignificant the day is for the rest of the world and how horrific it is for Becky and the impotence of the viewer as even those physically close to her cannot help. The isolation here is much more upsetting than that of the usual horror film simply because it's not remote. Leatherface's house or Friday the 13th's Camp Crystal Lake may be far from civilisation but here it's the fear of what goes on behind closed doors. The camera slips in and out of focus, mirroring the protagonists' loss of grip on reality.

Original music by Heather McIntosh ramps up the tension. There's already an unsettling and disturbing ambience to the film, one of the soulless burger chain and humming fluorescent lights that don't help you track the passage of time. But her music serves to increase that, particularly in the final scenes.

Zobel links the whole story to the 70s Milgram experiment, in which subjects were tested on their willingness to blindly obey authority figures. This is a particularly highfalutin tack to take with your first film, doubly so when your previous experience has been a band documentary and the creation of cult (and hilarious) webtoon Homestar Runner.

But given this took place decades before the sinister prank calls started, the findings of this experiment are worth highlighting again. People are naturally inclined to do what they're told, but sometimes it's important to stop and ask why. Zobel weaves this message into the entire narrative well - overall, this is an hard film to watch, but a compelling and taut thriller. If you can reconcile yourself to the fact that this is by no means a work of fiction, it's a very well executed film and worth seeing during its limited release.

Compliance was released in the UK on 22nd March 2013.

Nearest tube station: Oxford Circus (Bakerloo, Central, Victoria)

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