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In Defense of “Compliance,” Sundance’s Most Divisive Movie

In Defense of "Compliance," Sundance's Most Divisive Movie

I can’t get Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” out of my head. Like a migraine that won’t go away, this nasty enervating movie is really sticking. It’s the only movie I saw at Sundance that has compelled me to write about it. I don’t have an assignment to review it; I just need to exorcise it from my mind. And while it might be an unpleasant experience, it’s a testament to the power of this little, low-budget claustrophobic nightmare of a movie. After it ended, I actually let out an audible “oomph” noise as if someone had just hit me in the gut.

Now first, there’s some borderline unethical issues that need to be addressed: Yes, this is a film that places the audience in a superior position to its characters, observing these poor Chickwich workers like rats in a particularly menacing maze as a crank caller pretends to be a policeman and unceasingly manipulates them. And yes, this is a film that rides on the suspense of the sexual humiliation and domination of an attractive blonde teenage girl. And for these reasons alone you could throw “Compliance” on the misanthropic trash heap that so many critics and viewers will inevitably do.

But a few caveats to these criticisms: Does the film implicate the viewer — a la the work of Michael Haneke, an obvious reference point for this cinema of cruelty — or does the audience get a free pass, somehow getting some kind of sick vicarious pleasure in the proceedings. I’m not sure, but the sheer discomfort in watching the film might suggest the former.

In the film’s favor, I also can’t think of a recent American narrative film that is so profoundly political as “Compliance” — a post 9/11, post-Abu Ghraib, post-OWS account of power and class and subjugation in the heart of America. (Not only did I think of Haneke, but I also thought of Chris Smith’s work, and Errol Morris’ “Standard Operation Procedure”).

While “Compliance” strains credibility at times–it’s like the kids in the haunted house who should just get the fuck out, but don’t–and the movie may lose viewers during its horrible set-up, the film builds to a brilliant pair of totally unexpected scenes that cement the story’s themes of control and unaccountability that we’ve seen again and again in our society, from the torture chambers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo to the evisceration of our economy and our natural resources by Corporate America.

“Compliance” would not be as memorable if it weren’t for the dead-on performance by Ann Dowd. The revelation of Sundance, this middle-aged actress–a veteran of Chicago theater and “Law and Order”–is wholely credible, projecting the perfect mix of caring and callousness, and the seemingly innocuous urge to satisfy authority. Dowd’s smiling fast food manager, trying to keep her workplace in perfect order, reminds me of Sabrina Harman, the young female soldier in the Abu Ghraib photos who was smiling and giving a thumbs up, totally oblivious to the torture that was inflicted around her.

That analogy particularly hits home when reflecting on the film’s masterful coda: Dowd deflects, demures, denies, smiles. I’ve never cringed so much at the platitude, ‘It’s lovely down there.”

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All those who think the film strains credibility should compare it to the true-life events on which it was based:

I am so glad the reviewer mentioned Standard Operating Procedure. My exact thought while watching the film (after "Dear God, these people need a Know Your Rights training") was "Anyone who thinks this couldn't happen needs to watch Standard Operating Procedure."


I think people are judging the film too harshly. Yes, Compliance stretches plausibility to the breaking point. But these are fast food restaurant employees, not rocket scientists and I would guess that Zobel doesn't regard them very highly. However, two of the male characters question the ethics of what the "police officer" asks them to do.
I think the divisive nature of Compliance is proof that it's an effective story. I was surprised when people who paid good money and waited outside on a rainy day walked out midway through.
It's ridiculous that people watch garbage like Saw and Hostel or any number of vulgar Tarantino flicks, but get upset about a tiny indie film. Perhaps it hits too close to home?


My husband and I walked out at the one hour mark. We could no longer stand to participate in or comply during Zobel's experiment.


Like AlexJB, I and my three friends walked out of this film after an hour. We could no longer be compliant. It is impossible to believe that anyone who watches five minutes of any police or law show would have bought into the dialogue from "Daniels." Even my five-year-old grandchilden know about Miranda rights and not letting a grownup tell you to do uncomfortable things.


Having just sat through 1 hour of COMPLIANCE at the SF International FilmFest, I have to agree with Bob Hawk's assessment. To give Zobel credit for reflecting disturbing current events is simply to stretch too far, in my opinion, and is a projection. The setup was far too weak to make this feel like Abu Ghraib.

As a short film, it might have worked, but as a full length, it's just an increasingly implausible train wreck. By the one hour mark, it felt clear that there was no there there – we weren't heading to a place of deeper examination of psychological factors, we the audience had been duped into the same sick voyeuristic peep show as the poor ChickWay staff.


As the police officer that took the initial "real life" call, it will be intetesting to see how this plays out.

bob hawk

Going into Craig Zobel's COMPLIANCE there was much to recommend it. I've always been a big fan of Zobel's GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, and I greatly admire three of the lead actors: Ann Dowd, Bill Camp and Pat Healy (the first two primarily for their stage work and Healy in films). And it is based on true events that are compellingly chilling. The problem for me — being riveted for the first third, irritated for the second third as credulity was strained to the breaking point, then being bored out of my gourd and not caring about what was happening to anybody in the final third — became apparent when reading the press kit after the screening. It stated: "With no tapes of the phone conversations in existence, Zobel couldn't resist writing down ideas OF WHAT HE COULD ONLY GUESS HAD TAKEN PLACE, VERBALLY [emphasis mine]. Eventually, he notes, 'I realized this could be a cool little potboiler of a story,' completing a script shortly thereafter in just a month's time." Well, I would like to suggest that the actual calls ("more than 70 such calls occurred throughout the country over a 10 year period") might have been more subtly and insidiously manipulative than the dialogue Zobel created for Healy's character of "Officer Daniels." I just could not buy that the reasonably intelligent and sensible characters as represented by Dowd and Camp would have continued to buy into the increasingly absurd utterances of Daniels. Not that I would have expected verbatim texts, if they had existed, but Zobel had no point of reference from which to work. COMPLIANCE was the only major disappointment of Sundance 2012. (P.S. I admired the integrity of the two other seemingly big-time polarizing films of the fest: SIMON KILLER and THE COMEDY.)


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