Film review: abusive behaviour is the result of Compliance

Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 10:47pm

Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Director: Craig Zobel
Category: IIB


"It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority," the great American thinker Benjamin Franklin once said. But not everyone steps up to rage against the machine. Filmmaker Craig Zobel explores this thesis, based on a real incident, to devastating and uncomfortable effect in Compliance.

It's a busy and frustrating day at the fast food restaurant run by Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged woman who's just been berated by the delivery guy. Someone left a fridge open overnight and a lot of bacon spoiled, so new supply was needed quickly. "It's your job to manage this s***!" the short-tempered driver shouts.

Now, a corporate inspector is possibly dropping by anonymously. Sandra already has her hands full when a call comes in, supposedly from the police. The officer claims a young female employee has stolen money from customers and she needs to be detained and questioned.

It's not really a spoiler to reveal it's a prank call. But like most water-treading mid-tier wage-earners eager to please their boss and obey corporate regulations, Sandra does what she is told. She takes aside pretty teenager Becky (Dreama Walker) and proceeds to do exactly what the caller says, barely questioning the legalities of the request, or the logic of it.

So gradually, detention turns to strip search, and strip search turns to more outrageous violations and assault. Certainly, Compliance is not easy viewing. A lot of raw nerves are touched in its stark, almost documentary approach. At overseas screenings, people have walked out.

The camera sometimes lingers on the female victim - forced to strip, then further degraded under the guise of assisting the police - and this is Zobel's way of implicating the audience in voyeurism. Luckily, he isn't as brutal as Gaspar Noe or Michael Haneke, but even though the sexual humiliation is not titillating, it will make you feel dirty.

Smartly, the direction keeps the attention on Sandra and the other characters as they are manipulated into despicable deeds, rather than on Becky, the almost stoic victim. The teen character quips in a throwaway comment afterwards, "I just knew this was going to happen".

The obvious question is "what would you do if put in this situation?" It's easy to claim the moral high ground and suggest we wouldn't be so gullible. But the psychological game employed by the perpetrator (Pat Healy, who remains unseen until halfway through the film) is difficult to dismiss.

"Can I count on you to assist the authorities?" he prods the hesitant party. Nobody in the film is doing anything they want to, but most are just too afraid to say no and take responsibility.

In Hong Kong, Compliance could be taken as a satire, given the number of security uncles who engage in mindless adherence to silly rules. You don't think they would abuse a libertarian punk like you if they truly believed a superior ordered them to, do you?


Compliance opens on June 6