Thursday, April 11, 2013


This 2012 film by Craig Zobel is not, in his words, "a breezy charmer". I prepped myself for something very squirmy and dark, having read that "COMPLIANCE" was an indie psychological thriller of the highest order. It's very dark – no question about it – and it's also very good, but it's also, depending where you're coming from, I suppose, a little more palatable than, say, "Funny Games" or even "Deliverance". Then again, when you've steeled yourself for something that'll make you rip out hair and hide under the couch, even a prank phone call that escalates into psychological and sexual torture can be less excruciating than simply jarring & depraved. I thought the 100% unheralded indie cast were fantastic, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this is based on a wholly true set of incidents that occurred in the US several years ago.

A fast-food restaurant (Chickwich!) in a nondescript Northern-US town (Minnesota?) starts an average Friday night, with the teenage staff and the lower-income managers bickering, BS'ing and playing around with each other. A phone call comes in to the sweet, "average Midwestern" middle-age female manager (Sandra, played beautifully by Anne Dowd) from a policeman, who says that one of her young female employees has stolen money from a customer, who is there in the office with the cop – and furthermore, she and her brother are being investigated for drug sales out of their home. The employee - young, wide-eyed, pretty Becky – is called into the manager's office, and the descent begins from there. Without ever seeing a policeman – without ever even validating that the disembodied voice on the other end of the phone truly is a policeman – Sandra and others cooperate with his every request, including to strip-search Becky and describe her naked body to him. Becky, terrified of going to jail - even though she's done nothing (neither steal nor sell drugs) - is just as compliant with the "policeman", even when his demands cross over into personal violation, abject humiliation and then even into rape.

The film is actually quite simple in structure and in message. It takes place in real time, so the 90 minutes of the film are mostly spent on the phone call itself, and how it spirals out of control, all in service to the prank caller's sick humiliation fantasies. The message is, of course, how ordinary people can easily hand their good judgement and sense over to authority figures, simply because they say they are authority figures and come off as more "in control" of life's narrative. I thought it an interesting choice that we actually get to see the caller through much of the film; in other similar "creepy caller" films, the tension is heightened because you don't know who's on the other end beyond the voice. "COMPLIANCE" is very well-made and a strong sophomore effort by Craig Zobel (and his debut, 2007's "Great World of Sound", looks very promising as well).