‘Compliance’ reveals horrific dimensions of social behavior – a film review

September 20, 2012

Before any second of action starts in Compliance, director Craig Zobel wants to make sure the audience knows something. Prior to a bizarre, stomach-churning series of events in the back office of a fast food restaurant, the words “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS” fill the entire movie screen. Even after that preface, anyone attending the film with some sense will question why these characters behave as they do. Some might chalk it up to poor writing or weak character development. But, the truth is, Zobel seems to restrain himself from changing much of anything from the news reports that inspired this film. As writer at a TV news station, I have memories of the 2004 true story behind this film. It would be so easy to fall into a trap to try to make this movie a little more “believable” by softening the facts behind the story. Heck, Hollywood seemed to have done that for the recent fantastical horror story, the Possession. Look at the lesson in both reviews and box office returns (I’d suggest reading the eBay description of the item that inspired the film instead).

But Compliance has nothing to do with the supernatural, which adds to the horror of this movie of sexual assault by phone call. Zobel sets up the banal atmosphere of where the crime unfolds with snowy exteriors of suburbia. The manager of a fictitious fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd, who ingests a low-key pathos into her role) is chastised for letting bacon go to waste by a food delivery man on a Napoleon trip. Sandra takes the verbal abuse, including blue language, like a whipped dog.

When her younger assistant manager and crew of teenage slackers show up to work at the “ChickWich,” she transfers the chastising with meek authority. No one will fess up to leaving the freezer door open, which resulted in the spoiled bacon, as she sets up the discussion with that expectation. Sandra wants to exert authority over her people but earns no respect. She cannot resist inserting herself into a conversation when she overhears her assistant manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) and the cashier, 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker), chatting about Becky’s boyfriends. One boyfriend is boring Becky by continually sending her shirtless pictures over her cell phone. Sandra chimes in about how she’s hip to the “sexting.” She over-shares how her boyfriend, who she sure is about to propose, sends her naked pictures, too. The younger women roll their eyes as soon as Sandra turns her back. By this point in the film, the director has set up part of a perfect storm of personality conflicts.

As the film establishes the hustle of a fast food joint: the grease pits used to cook French fries, the paper-wrapped sandwiches and the hungry mouths they end up in, filling up the screen, the restaurant’s phone rings. Sandra picks up. The voice on the other end identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) and asks if she has a young girl working the register. “Becky?”

“Yes, Rebecca!” says the voice. More cutaways to the chaos of the restaurant and Becky, as this detective on the phone explains that Becky has been accused of stealing from a customer. The voice says the victim is present with him and the district’s general manager is on the other line. “Freddy?” says Sandra. “Yes, Fred!” It soon becomes apparent that distracted, impressionable people are being taken advantage of by a voice of perceived authority. When Sandra hands the phone to Becky, that disembodied voice of authority demands her respect. “I’m going to need you to address me as sir of officer,” he says when she gets defensive about the allegations.

I could go into the details, but if you have not read the news stories that inspired Compliance, you will be more impressed going into the movie blind. Do note that this is not a date movie, but may make a good group film, as you may feel inclined to talk out the trauma after the film. The horrors will not satisfy superficial gorehounds, as this is not one of those films, but horrors indeed unfold in that office, starting with a strip search. Some, especially women, might find events that unfold difficult to endure, and the film spends a long time in that office. The camera seems to float voyeuristically, always moving, almost leering over the proceedings, adding to the creepiness factor. But, go back to the title card that fills the opening shot, “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS.” This is a horror show into the limits of social dynamics, and the fact that this really happened should serve as a lesson in awareness of one’s own humanity.

Zobel knows he has a good story, and he respects it. Walker, whose famous today as the goody-goody roommate in the ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” puts on a brave face throughout her character’s gradual downward spiral into degradation. The supporting cast members who each have a turn “guarding” her offer an array of reactions that will make one question what drives the core of a person to do what they do, some of whom seem to sleep walk through life. One of the more unsettling reactions has to be that of Marti who plays with her tongue ring as she watches Becky strip with a distant, voyeuristic apathy. Meanwhile, Sandra cries a single, silent tear as she follows the caller’s orders that she demand Becky remove everything.

The film does soften the blow to these events by eventually revealing the man on the other side of the line. It also feels inclined to end with a seemingly slapped on, unnecessary resolution. However, some in the audience might feel relief to have some “light” after the harrowing events in the ChickWich office. Besides, there is one more title card regarding the reality of these events to endure at the end of the film that packs a wallop of a reality check.

Hans Morgenstern


Compliance is Rated R (it earns it) and runs 95 minutes. It opens in the South Florida area theatrically beginning this Friday, Sept. 21, at many indie theaters:

Sept. 21:

O Cinema – Miami, FL
Bill Cosford Cinema  – Coral Gables, FL
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL

Sept. 27:

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned nationally throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. The Miami Beach Cinematheque invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

16 Responses to “‘Compliance’ reveals horrific dimensions of social behavior – a film review”

  1. nm boliek Says:

    Excellent review. I wish more directors and writers would take a risk and believe in the audience. Not all of us are looking to walk away feeling good – some of us want to flinch and squirm and ponder. I for one am tired of being entertained with the same tired storylines and I don’t want over the top computer EFX. I want a truly interesting experience one that cuts to the bone or shatters illusions……I’m ranting again. I reblogged and I’ll def be making the trip to Cosford. Thanks!

  2. alort Says:

    Great review. Going to find a place where I can watch it 🙂

    • indieethos Says:

      Cool! Thanks. Is the link at the very end clear in pointing you to the closest city where it’s playing?

      • alort Says:

        the link that refers to Magnolia pictures? That one only refers to screenings in the US. I’m in The Netherlands and I just realized I’m going to have a hard time finding a screening at all. I guess I just have to be more patient 🙂

      • indieethos Says:

        Oh! What a picture of America this will present to you when you see it.

      • alort Says:

        After seeing the trailer, it would be something like this: dumb, naive Americans. But not to worry, we get that picture all the time, especially during US election time. Sorry for being so cynical. At times that fair country of yours just amazes me and often not in a good way.
        But you just whetted my appetite for this film 🙂

      • indieethos Says:

        No worries. When a cousin of mine visited from Spain he assumed I must have voted to re-elect Bush because he got back into office. Today we got the bad news that Fiona Apple was arrested in Texas for possession of stuff you buy in cafes in your part of the world. I know what you mean…

      • alort Says:

        The rules of that game have changed here recently. As of now you have to be a member of that kind of cafés. So it’s more like a club. Downside: only 2000 members per club allowed. Goal of this policy: making the country a less attractive place for soft drugs tourists. Result: more illegal activities (and still plenty of drug tourism, but in the illegal circuit now). It’s almost like we don’t learn from the miserably failing US’ war on drugs. I really don’t get that. We have about the lowest soft drug use in the developed world in this country, just because we made it somewhat available (not legal, not illegal; the correct word for the policy is: soft drug toleration (to some extent)), we managed to make soft drugs boring and unattractive. I have no idea who or why, but somebody thought: to hell with that concept, that works out way to well! So now, clubs with members. The policy will probably be reversed, since we will have a new government soon.

      • indieethos Says:

        I heard about this. The border crossing has been weakened since the EU, and it’s to keep the rowdy Belgians who come on weekends in check, simply speaking.

      • alort Says:

        Correct, that was the idea – and not just Belgians, but also French and Germans. Just turns out that these drugs tourists don’t cause so much trouble. They come in, get their stuff, maybe smoke one and then they leave. Now, they still come, but they have to get their stuff on the street (illegal) and that does cause some trouble. The illegal circuit has become vibrant once again. Very sad.

  3. Ana Says:

    I remember watching the 20/20 special for these news stories. It was chilling, frightening and unbelievable all at the same time. I am glad it wasn’t overly dramatized with acting portrayals. Great review!

  4. Tom Steele Says:

    So, interesting reading the comments years later. I only post because this movie is much more available now. It is on Amazon Prime for “free.” Since you can “download” it, I’m assuming it is watchable anywhere on the internet now.

    I won’t argue politics, except to say that it sounds like USA bashing isn’t as simple as it used to be because so many of the European countries are starting to experience a renaissance of prudish, “we know what’s best for you better than you know what’s best for you” while some of the US States are legalizing cannabis in small quantities.

    However, I came to comment on the several people who were surprised that this was covered on 20/20 and other places.

    That’s because we have since learned that there have been MULTIPLE instances of this, and by multiple, I don’t mean just one or two.

    The movie (perhaps wisely) uses a good bit of artistic license in some areas, but stays very true to the story in others. This means that you REALLY have to read the true story if you want to take this seriously and start looking to pin blame or discuss social issues or you may find yourself arguing over something that didn’t really happen the way you think that it did.

    The wikipedia page isn’t bad to be honest. And of course, in spite of being reviled for its imperfections, wikipedia DOES provide links to its sources which lead you to good information if you are willing to do the soft work of “digging” for it after someone else has done the deep diving and laid all the sources out in front of you.

    One thing that I really enjoyed about the movie is that Becky is asked, “Why didn’t you just leave?”

    Her replay – in my mind – was that of a girl who had one too many visits from her step-father in the middle of the night while she was sleeping, or perhaps her step-brother or brother, or… well, you get it. She seemed believable in an unbelievable situation. She didn’t seem overly _stupid_ for not walking away. She seemed RESIGNED to the fate.

    She said, “I don’t know, I just knew it was gonna happen.”

    Up until then, I struggled with HOW she could have not just walked out. I still struggle with how the ENTIRE place just did what they did and didn’t do what the last guy who came in the store did – stand up and say, “This isn’t right!”

    And frankly, one of the best scenes in the movie is the last scene with Ann Dowd, who plays the manager – Sandra – is being interviewed and she recalls things very differently from what the camera recorded.

    When shown that her memory was flawed and that things were worse than her memory recalled – she awkwardly laughs and you can almost FEEL her pushing those new images from the security camera down deep into her memory so that her sanitized versions can remain what she believes when she remembers the events.

    It is a thought-provoking performance.

    Finally, if you take the time to study the story – Sandra, the manager who perpetrated much of what happened with her blind, sheep-like following with no critical thinking at all, was one of two people AWARDED LARGE SUMS OF MONEY in this case.

    She won very nearly half of what the real victim – “Becky” settled for in court after fighting McDonalds and the local managing company.

    So… the woman who helped to imprison an innocent employee, who eventually was forced to do illegal things with this woman’s fiance, was awarded nearly $400,000 while the woman who was actually raped was only awarded $1,100,000 – and there is no telling what the lawyers took.

    The whole thing is a sick, sick testament to society in so many ways.

    It is not easy to assign the blame in a black and white manner.

    How much blame does Becky own in allowing this to happen to her and not even really TRYING to say no.

    How much blame does the manager own? How much blame does the nice kid who tries to do the right thing, giving her an apron and dialing *69 to get the phone number of the actual “bad guy” deserve – for not taking that one extra step and calling the cops or speaking up?

    How much blame does McDonalds shoulder – or do they? Is it reasonable to expect to have to tell your employees, “Do not strip search anyone?” Do they really need to say, “Don’t let a manager strip search you?”

    It might be easy to form simple opinions if this were a one-off case, but it isn’t – there were dozens and dozens of cases like it and people did this all over!!!

    What makes some people so willing to follow orders without questioning them?

    What can we do about it?

    I am still thinking about this movie.

    • Hans Says:

      Wow! What a thoughtful reply. Thank you for bringing this film back to my attention. Just today I myself saw it was on Amazon Prime. How funny is it that you commented on the same day.

      I think your questions are vital in today’s age where we had a demagogic president who stirred up people with lies and who himself was voted into office by the manipulation of information by foreign forces. There will always be many people who can be easily influenced by words. It’s important, I think to question everything and to get out of rationalizing and really feeling into one’s gut. If something feels “off” it usually is.

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