Directed by Craig Zobel.
2012. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Sandra (Dowd) is the manager at Chickwich, a fast-food restaurant, and her day starts off on the wrong foot. One of her employees left the freezer open last night and almost fifteen hundred dollars worth of food is ruined. This includes much of the all-important bacon supply. She’s fairly certain it was the dopey Kevin (Ettinger), but doesn't have any proof. Oh well. Becky (Walker), the young blond who works one of the registers, thinks that Sandra thinks it was her. Becky professes her innocence and makes it known she can’t afford to lose her job. Smack dab in the middle of the busiest time of day, a police officer, Officer Daniels (Healy) calls the store and tells Sandra that he is with a woman who says Becky stole money from her. He instructs Sandra to bring Becky into the back so they can all get to the bottom of this matter. This begins with Sandra checking Becky’s pockets and even her purse. From there, things escalate to dizzying heights.
As events unfold, we’re simultaneously amazed and appalled by what we’re seeing. Our stomachs churn, forcing us to vocalize our displeasure. Not only are we upset with the man on the phone, but also with Sandra and others physically present for their roles in what happens to Becky. We pray in vain for one of them to grow a brain and get over their blind allegiance to authority, to simply ask themselves how any of this makes any sense. Sandra only occasionally shows the slightest reluctance while marching forward with her orders. The others only momentarily question her when she involves them at the officer’s behest, but fall in line. Only Kevin, the one we thought wasn't so smart, takes any sort of stand before it’s too late. The entire situation gets beneath our skin.
Our hearts bleed for Becky. As viewers, we share in her helplessness. Whatever belief we have in our fellow man to do what’s right, not necessarily the same as what they’re told is right, is dismantled right before our eyes. However, we wonder at what point will she stand up for herself, if at all. How complicit is she in her own victimization? To be clear, we don’t want to blame the victim. Still, even the movie itself wonders aloud if she could’ve put a stop to the whole thing herself rather early on. That said, we realize she is totally taken advantage of.
The performances of the two women in the lead roles are excellent conduits for our anger and sympathy. Dowd, as Sandra, perfectly echoes many we've all encountered in lower/middle management positions. She’s doing what she thinks is right from an organizational standpoint without actually thinking about what is really right. This is why she’s so willing to comply with a voice on the phone. We marvel at how naive she is, but don’t doubt for a second that there are plenty of real Sandras out there. As Becky, Walker pulls off a remarkable innocence that combines with the situation itself to make many portions of the movie very tough to watch.
That Compliance is so tough to watch is what makes it a compelling piece of American horror. The fact that the victims never see their boogeyman doesn't make him any less scary. In fact, it makes him more so. He does what anyone can. Behind a veil of anonymity, and with the illusion of power, it is much easier to get others to do your bidding, no matter how twisted. To make matters even more terrifying, the movie is inspired by true events from a few years ago. Many of the things that happen here really did take place. Again, there are real Sandras out there. And Beckys.
Now that I've built this movie up as a great horror film, get that idea out of your head. It is, but many will think it isn't. The problem is Compliance bypasses most of the genre’s traditional tropes and resembles nothing of the sort. There is no masked madman dismembering co-eds or ghosts trying to make us jump. If that’s what you’re looking for, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in a truly disturbing picture that deserves to be seen, this is for you.