It’s difficult to review a movie like Compliance. Usually the tag line, “Inspired By True Events” signals a couple of hours of cinematic hyperbole. Even documentaries aren’t immune from altering or omitting facts to suit the filmmakers’ agenda(s). What’s most disturbing about Compliance is how scenes that might trigger the viewer’s bullshit meter actually did occur. While much of the dialogue used to illustrate the events may have been created, the scenarios themselves are real.
Anyone who has worked in a fast food restaurant (or as industry parlance prefers, a “quick-service restaurant”) might immediately feel discomfort during the opening scenes of Compliance, not because of any horrific events taking place, but because of the remarkably authentic atmosphere of what takes place in those environments.
Corporate policy dictates what employees must do and how they must act down to the most minute detail: uniforms must conform to requirements and be worn in a specific way; policies and procedures spell out precise, exacting instructions for storing, cooking, preparing, and serving food. Very little, if anything, is left to chance. Even accidents are covered by protocol. Creativity and individualism are not only viewed with suspicion, but also with hostility, often punished via official reprimands or termination.
Before anything particularly outrageous happens in Compliance, there is an argument between ChickWich manager Sandra and one of the food suppliers regarding spoiled food and her lack of preparation. Exasperated, he barks, “How do you deal with your kids?” His rage seems excessive and personal, but this is a good indicator of how much more excessive and personal Compliance will become.
It’s also hard to decide on how much plot summary to give for a movie like Compliance. There is a lot of documentation on the events (and their aftermath) that inspired the film; you might be familiar with them or the Law & Order: SVU episode with Robin Williams that was also based on these events (Season 9’s “Authority”). Could knowing all of this beforehand better prepare someone for the unbearable, heart-pounding, stomach-churning discomfort Compliance will engender? How does one prepare to witness 90 minutes of real-life atrocities?
Certainly those who’ve been sexually assaulted should be warned about triggering images, even though there is no depiction of sexual assault onscreen. As much as Compliance is about the dangers of following orders unquestioningly, it is also very much about the insidiousness of rape. No doubt more than one viewer watched the film and thought (or even verbalized), “Why would someone do that?” or “Why wouldn’t he say something?” or “Why didn’t she just leave?” But that’s the thing about rape and control. Once you have relinquished control, you will likely do things you never imagined you were capable of doing.
Compliance isn’t a violent movie, just like rape doesn’t always incorporate what many think of as violent acts, such as screaming or struggling. Watching how easily the characters in Compliance slide into their roles one realizes how easily one can become a victim of sexual assault. Or a perpetrator of it. These are the most frightening aspect of Compliance.
Director Craig Zobel has assembled an amazing cast; no one acts like a movie star, and everyone looks like someone you’d pass by on the street. The camera work conveys everything necessary without being flashy or obvious. The dialogue is believable; there are no out-of-place soliloquies that aspire to philosophical greatness. Visually, the film is perfect; all the hallmarks of fast food restaurants are there: the counter, the fry station, the metal storage trays for condiments, the grill, the dirty sink, the storage freezer, the dingy back office.
That such terrible things could and did take place in the midst of such controlled banality makes everything that much more vivid and soul shattering. Compliance is the complete opposite of a terrible movie, but so much so that I don’t think I can watch it again. If Zobel’s agenda was to force us to confront hideous truths about “humanity,” he has succeeded.
Compliance was released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment on January 8. The DVD includes the theatrical trailer, an interview with Craig Zobel, and two short featurettes: “Behind The Scenes of Compliance” and “AXS TV: A Look at Compliance.”