Movie Review: Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy
Running Time: 90 minutes

Imagine you are the manager of a popular fast food restaurant. What would you do if you received a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer who is investigating a complaint that one of your employees stole money from a customer? Would you agree to help the officer by keeping the employee, a 19-year-old woman, in a back room while searching her things? Would you agree to strip search her?

It’s easy to scoff at the notion of agreeing to do any of these things. Most of us would ask for some sort of police identification, right? Or make the cop come to you and question the girl in person? It seems like common sense, but the truth is that we really don’t know how we would react in a situation without having been there before.

Compliance tells the story of the above scenario, and every single aspect of the film is 100% true. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a local ChickWich restaurant, receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He notifies her about the fake complaint, and she brings the 19-year-old “suspect”, Becky (Dreama Walker), into the back room to investigate. Firmly believing she is talking to a police officer, Sandra follows along with the man’s orders, even going so far as to perform a strip search. As if that weren’t worse enough, the “investigation” spirals out of control as other people become involved, and Becky is forced into even more unfathomable actions.

Compliance [2012]

During the entire film, I found myself saying over and over: “are you kidding me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening.” It is mind-blowing that the manager, the victim and the others who get tangled in the mess all willingly go along with this person’s orders simply because they believe he is a cop. It all sounds so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real… but it absolutely is. After viewing the film, I immediately looked up the true story, and every single detail was accurate.

Watching this man, who we occasionally see on the other end of the phone, manipulate both the manager and employee is extremely uncomfortable. This is not an easy watch by any means, and its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year brought out a number of angry reactions. Some walked out of the screening; others resorted to shouting matches. Yes, this is a film capable of evoking those types of powerful emotions, and it’s unlike any other film in recent years.

Compliance [2012]

This is only director Craig Zobel’s second full-length film (he is also co-founder of the popular animated Internet cartoon, Homestar Runner), and he already has the traits of a seasoned veteran. He is careful not to show us some of the more extreme moments of compliance on screen, thankfully, and he makes masterful use of long takes, especially near the end. The performances from all involved are also strong, especially from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker. I heard Dowd’s name being mentioned in some awards chatter, and her performance most certainly warrants recognition. And poor Walker, she does an amazing job in a difficult role, especially as she is half-naked for the majority of the film.

It’s a bit tricky to full-on recommend Compliance. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, but damn if it isn’t an unsettling watch. At the very least, it’s scary to imagine just how far some people will go when they are being ordered around by someone of authority.


26 thoughts on “Movie Review: Compliance [2012]

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      You know, I never thought of Compliance as a horror movie, but I think it could fit the bill. It’s certainly a horrifying story, especially since nearly every single aspect is 100% true. But for me, the scariest aspect is just how gullible these people are…

  1. John says:

    A friend of mine saw this recently, on my recommendation. I asked him what he thought afterwards. He gave it 1 star and said it was too ridiculous to be believed.

    Then I showed him the Wikipedia page from the event and how it had all happened- each and every single thing in the film (or most of it, anyway, including the most outrageous parts) and he instantly changed his grade to 4 out of 5 stars.

    • Alex Withrow says:

      I wasn’t as against the movie as your friend initial was, but your story is damn similar to how I came to love the film. When I saw this in the theater, people were actually laughing, as in, “Oh, cut me a break.”

      I went home, looked the events up, and was floored. I mean… wow.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Ha, yeah I can definitely understand where your friend is coming from. If I didn’t know that everything that happened in the film was true, I probably would have just dismissed this as another far-fetched thriller. It blows my mind that this happened, not to mention dozens of other similar cases during a ten year span. Just unbelievable.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Eric. I didn’t like how the movie showed who the other person was on the phone so early, but it’s still tense and disturbing, especially if you take into account what actually went down. Just some effed-up people out there, man.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      It didn’t bother me that we saw the person on the other line so soon. I actually thought we had a good buffer period where we didn’t know who made the phone call. But yeah, such a ridiculous story. Still hard to believe it’s all true.

      • ruth says:

        I have the same reaction as T. Fantastic review here Eric, and you got me even more curious than I was before, but ‘unsettling’ isn’t something I look for in a movie, ahah. I could see how this story would linger with you for days, your first paragraph already got me pondering about this!

  3. YumnaMirza says:

    I saw this without knowing what it was about. Just knew there was rape involved but man. This took me completely by surprise and I hated the entire thing because it made me feel unbearable tot think such things had actually happened to people.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      I agree with you 100% about that unbearable feeling. It’s a difficult watch, but any film that evokes the kind of emotion it got out of me must be doing something right. I just couldn’t believe it. Still can’t stop thinking about it!

  4. teddy1992 says:

    This film made me so uncomfortable. I knew beforehand that it was based on factual events, which made the movie-watching experience resonate with me that much more. Great film indeed.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Teddy, thanks for stopping by! Completely agree with you. A lot of films throw up the “based on a true story” note and are anything but true, but I was shocked that everything in Compliance actually happened. Gotta love Wikipedia — that made for great reading fodder immediately afterward.

  5. Alex Withrow says:

    Great review here, Eric. I agree, a damn difficult movie to watch (and to recommend) but a vital film nevertheless. I thought it expertly captured the potential ignorance of human nature.

  6. Morgan R. Lewis says:

    I remember watching one of those Dateline/2020 type shows on this when it first came to light. Couldn’t, and still can’t, fathom how people would just go along with that. I’m sorry, but this is something where people should know better (as the one person who actually stopped it did), and it just saddens me some people would go that far before someone puts a stop to it.

    Don’t think I’ll be watching this, simply because I expect it’d be more uncomfortable than enjoyable, and I already feel well enough informed. It does bother me to read the reactions of people saying they didn’t realize it was a real event though — there’s a serious risk here that people are going to react to this like they do with most “based on true events” movies, and think that it’s just pure baloney like it usually is. The end result may, unfortunately, be a warped sort of cover-up.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      I can definitely understand your reservations, Morgan. This is 100% an uncomfortable movie, not an enjoyable one, but it certainly has the power to evoke a number of emotions out of its viewers.

      And I’m with you about thinking that people should know better in this situation. At first, I could kind of see why the manager was going along with it. A phone call from a police officer, sure. Wants to check the girl’s purse, okay. But as soon as a strip search is brought up, that should have been a huge red flag and the end of the conversation. The fact that it took a few different people before someone finally spoke up is outrageous.

  7. Lee says:

    Thanks for a good review. My wife and I knew about the real story before the movie came out, so we couldn’t watch it with fresh eyes as some here did. The movie does follow the real story very closely, with only minor variations. And yes, thankfully, it soft-pedals some of the worst parts of the original incident.

    I do think that it was a mistake to spill the beans so early by showing the person on the other end of the line. It breaks the viewer out of the experience of the people receiving the orders. The audience should have found out at the same time that those following the orders found out.

    But the biggest faux pas in the movie was Becky’s last line, to the detective: “I just knew it was going to happen.” That trivialized the movie with the stereotypical “fatalism” trope. What she should have said in her brief but precious wrap-up line is what the original victim actually said when asked a similar question: I was trained to follow orders from adults, so that’s what I did.

    Still, it’s about as good a treatment of the story and the theme as we’re likely to get in a major motion picture, and I do appreciate it for that, as difficult as it is to watch. If you’re interested in my take on the movie from a psychological and spiritual perspective, here’s my own rather lengthy post:

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Lee, thank you so much for the very insightful comment. You make a good point about actually seeing the man on the other end of the phone perhaps too early. I think it might have been more effective to have the big reveal at the end as well, but I know I was dying to see just who this person was. It’s clear to the audience that he is not a police officer, but the question is, just who are we dealing with here?

      I also like your point about Becky’s final line. I don’t think that fits in entirely with the rest of the film — your proposed alternative succinctly wraps it up better.

      I’ll take a look at your post — thanks for sharing.

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