Retro Review: COMPLIANCE (2012){0}

If you don’t think this one is a horror film, stop fooling yourselves.

Ever get yelled at by an angry policeman? It’s not a pleasant experience, especially if you didn’t do anything wrong. The power of authority is a dangerous thing, especially in a society as dense and confused as America. Given too much authority, a nice person can commit horrible atrocities, and nowhere is that theory more visible than in the fascinating new thriller called Compliance.

Based on numerous actual events, Compliance is about a young woman who works at a fast food restaurant. A cop calls the restaurant manager and insists that young Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer, and demands that the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), keep Becky locked in a back office. And then the cop demands a strip search … and then even worse. Were Compliance pure fiction, the halfway point of the film would represent a huge problem: we’d never believe that “normal” people could sink so low, and so quickly.

But that’s sort of the point of Compliance: that some people bow to authority without a second thought, and that some people like to abuse that fact for their own entertainment. The cop, of course, is a complete fake. The caller is little more than a very intelligent sleazebag, one who has clearly done this before, and is taking great delight in how easy it is to manipulate people into doing terrible things … simply because they “respect authority.”

“Oh, that restaurant manager would never do THAT,” is what you’ll think as Compliance kicks into its second act, but once you accept that the movie is based on (several!) actual events, you’ll be able to appreciate the points that writer/director Craig Zobel is trying to make: how “little” authority generally invites a craving for “true” authority, even when the person is a decent sort. How our society has become terrified of doing something “wrong” and then being tossed into a faceless system of endless misery. And, of course, how we will sometimes ignore our own basic humanity in the face of fear and self-preservation. Basically, Compliance is as infuriating as it is compelling, but the film also raises a worthwhile point: don’t ever give your trust away blindly.

Mr. Zobel seems well aware that this premise is outlandish, even if it is true, so he does an excellent job of populating the film with realistic characters who, for the most part, do intelligent things. The central character is not the victim, but the unwitting antagonist, and as “manager” Sandra, Ann Dowd is simply pitch-perfect. Partially bossy but still kind-hearted, clearly not super-bright, but never outright stupid, Dowd plays the role as a perfect balance between clueless and compassionate. Young Dreama Walker has a tough job as well, here playing a girl who’s asked to remain composed throughout all sorts of horrible degradations — and Pat Healy, as the fake cop who seems delighted to find such gullible victims, is both darkly amusing and quietly creepy.

Transforming actual events into a work of fiction is always a dicey proposition, but high praise is due to Zobel and his collaborators for locating one fascinating piece of criminal history and turning it into a movie that makes several salient points without ever preaching, judging, or resorting to simplistic platitudes. This is an incendiary movie made for and by smart people, and for that reason I think Compliance is one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen all year.