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Weekend Indies: COMPLIANCE is an Ethical Nightmare

A film that grabbed my attention recently and held me firmly by the throat is Craig Zobel’s disturbing fast-food restaurant thriller, Compliance. I described it that way because almost the entire film takes place in an Ohio fast food restaurant called “Chickwich.” Is it claustrophobic in there? Absolutely. But Compliance is more than a cheap thrill, it’s a positively terrifying true story of deceit. Remember the 2004 case that took place at a McDonalds in Kentucky, where a waitress was abused by a hoax caller pretending to be the police? That ‘stunt’ was actually pulled 70 times in the United States. Unbelievable, right? Compliance is inspired by that incident.

Before I dive in, I’ll mention that Compliance was very well-reviewed by critics, but not a lot of other people saw it. There was little marketing for this film. Some who did see it criticized it for relentlessly pushing an uncomfortable point across, including a fellow Nerdist writer, whose review I’ve linked to in the Related Article’s section. With no disrespect to him, I’d like to offer another opinion. I think this film is worth your attention not simply for a reminder that authority shouldn’t cloud our judgement or morality, but for the strikingly authentic performances.

On that note, Ann Dowd is the most underrated actress of all time. You’ve seen her in The Leftovers, Masters of Sex, Olive Kitteridge, and so many more things, yet somehow her name has never become a household one. Anyway, she has the lead role in Compliance–and which she should have earned an Oscar nomination for–playing Sandra, the manager of the fast-food restaurant. Sandra is fulfilling her daily managerial responsibilities with a cool head, even though you get the feeling she could surely flourish in another profession, one where she doesn’t have to deal with snippy teenagers who have come to flip burgers for the first time. On a busy day where the team are understaffed and careless mistakes are being made (such as an employee who left the freezer open, spoiling $15,000 worth of food), “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) calls the restaurant and starts accusing Becky (Dreama Walker), one of the teenage employees, of stealing money from a customer’s purse. Becky strongly denies this, but Officer Daniels insists he caught her in the act on the security tape. Sandra, who is overwhelmed by her responsibilities and unsure of how to react around this demanding police officer, complies with the officer’s order to detain Becky.

That’s right, detain. What follows after that is a tragic series of events where Becky is ordered to perform unsavory acts for the police officer, who is still not physically there–he’s only on the phone, spitting out orders to Sandra, who relays them to Becky. She cooperates amidst the confusion and horror, and this situation of course brings up the question, what would you do? Fine, you yourself might have called his bluff early on, and may have been laughing when ‘Officer Daniels’ is revealed to be a lowly prank caller looking for a nasty thrill, but consider the fact that perhaps you know someone else who may have reacted similarly to Becky. Maybe you went to school with someone like Becky. She’s a smart girl, but lacking in the tools to rise above a situation like this–it’s so much bigger and badder than her. This is probably Becky’s first ever job, too. She doesn’t want to get in trouble. Sandra doesn’t want to get in trouble either, she just wants this stressful day to be over and done with.

The film is a fantastically intricate character study of a woman who blindly goes along with the ‘police officer’s’ orders, making her equally complicit in the crime, and a young girl who was failed by the adults around her. What a transformative life event–she might never be able to trust anybody again. And Sandra should have known better, but she caved in the face of who she believed was an authority figure. Not even in the face, merely by the sound of his voice. Dowd’s performance is remarkably complex and consistent; she nails every little hesitation, every moment of horror, and we truly believe she is there in this room, listening to the police officer and then carrying out his orders. No questions asked, though a subtle look in her eyes tells us that she’s out of her element. What’s even more impressive is that throughout the film, she carries herself with integrity and grace. Ann Dowd is the reason to see Compliance.

What are your thoughts on this film? Have you seen it? Are you going to? Reach out to me on Twitter to agree or disagree with my thoughts, or make a comment below.

IMAGES: Magnolia Pictures

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