Magnolia Pictures // 2012 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 28th, 2013
How far would you go?
It seems like every day we're inundated with increasingly horrifying stories in the news. As time goes by, people find more and more inventive ways to be horrible to one another. However, some stories still stick out for their depravity or bizarre nature. The incident at a Kentucky McDonalds, where a prank caller impersonated a police officer investigating an employee and convinced a manager to strip search that employee really sticks out. So much so that an enterprising filmmaker has given it the fictional treatment with Compliance. It's a powerful film on a difficult topic, but it'll leave most viewers horrified to little purpose.
It's just another day at the fictional ChicWich fast food franchise. As the film opens, someone from the previous night's shift left the freezer door open, ruining a bunch of product, but also leaving manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, Garden State) with a mess to clean up. Things take a turn for the worse when a police officer calls, claiming that a customer has lodged a complaint against one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker, Gran Torino). The officer requests that Sandra strip search Becky. As both their protests mount, the officer gets more and more insistent about Sandra's responsibilities. How far will everyone take these complaints?
Compliance is a deeply, deeply unsettling film. The actors are all horribly convincing as regular people trapped in an extraordinary situation. The entire film is shot in a muted, claustrophobic style that makes the setting feel both utterly ordinary and oppressively strange. Of course, the actual story is nightmarish in a way that would give Kafka the willies. In the award for films mostly like to make viewers want to take a shower afterward, Compliance gets a gold star.
Compliance (Blu-ray) is as beautiful as the film is horrifying. Shot on digital, the 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is wonderfully detailed. There's a sick, gray quality to the image that makes the film look like it was shot in the worst fluorescent lights, and yet skin tones remain accurate. Black levels are sufficiently deep and consistent, even in the darker back rooms of the restaurant. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similarly effect. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, while the surrounds get a lot of action in the restaurant for ambient effects. There are no thumping booms or cracking gunshots, but this is an effective mix for the taut film.
At the end of the day, I'm not sure horrifying viewers is quite enough to make Compliance worth sitting through. The film is based on the worst of the dozens of prank calls made across the nation, but little of the real-world fallout of the incidents comes through here. As in the real-life situation, Compliance lacks a three-act structure or any kind of payoff. The real-life story in some ways gets more interesting after the incident, as a suspected caller is tried and found not guilty, several of the participants plead guilty, and the restaurant where they worked was sued for failure to adequately train employees to deal with the prank calls.
It's these latter facts that drive home the failure in Compliance -- by keeping it all about the initial incident, the film ends up with nothing to say about the wider problems that lead to 1) why a man would make these kind of calls; 2) why seemingly normal people would perpetrate these acts or accept them from another; and 3) what we can do to address the issues these incidents raise. We know from the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments that everyday people will acquiesce to authority and do terrible things with even a small amount of power.
What Compliance doesn't do is address how that fact intersects with contemporary American life. Unlike Milgram and Stanford, the fictionalized incident occurred in the real world, in a rural location where employees are making near minimum-wage. The caller portrays himself as a policeman, while the film assumes he works at a call center. The fact that poverty, marginality, and authority are all circling around these stories is almost completely glossed over in favor of giving us a detailed portrayal of the degradation of several human beings. It feels like we're asked to sit through a lot to learn very little. The payoff is feeling really dirty, and the sneaking suspicion that maybe you would have behaved differently in that situation (though it's entirely possible that you wouldn't have).
Many of these shortcomings could have been addressed by a really strong extras package that delved into the facts and fallout surrounding the actual incidents. Sadly, those extras aren't here. We get a 10-minute interview with director Craig Zobel that touches on some of the history, but sticks mostly with the film's production. We then get a pair of EPK-style featurettes that together total 6 minutes, offering some snippets of production footage and cast interviews. The film's trailer is also included.
Because the film doesn't do much to stylize the story of a day in the life of ChickWich, I could definitely see some viewers growing tired of the gradual degradation of BLAH. The film's trajectory is only down, down, down to the depths of human misery, and that doesn't give the film much forward momentum. Similarly, if you come to the film with any knowledge of the actual incident that inspired the film, there aren't a whole lot of narrative surprises, either.
Technically, Compliance is a triumph across the board. The acting is solid and believable, the look of the film is perfectly styled to the material, and the presentation of this Blu-ray is excellent. That doesn't mean, however, that I can recommend Compliance. It's a dark film that takes on a problematic subject, but in the end it'll leave most viewers either bored or just feeling icky.
Guilty of making viewers feel icky.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R