Compliance (2012)

Very Good

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 8, 2013 on tonymacklin.net.

We live in a world of spam and religion.

Once the seed is planted, it may take root. Whom do you trust?

It's not implausible that one might give credence to a phone call from someone who says he is a policeman and has the voice of authority. Most of us might try to resist manipulation, but our society is based on our not being skeptical.We think we are, but we aren't.

The advertising machine is well aware of how malleable we are. An ad could make us go to war or buy some crap.

Writer/director Craig Zobel cagily uses the concept of manipulation in Compliance. There's been a lot made about how Compliance is based on a true event. At the end of his film, Zobel informs us that what happened in his film actually in some form has happened 70 times. But that doesn't make his film more believable.

Because a film draws from a true happening does not make it truly told. The event may be true; the film may be not. Sometimes fiction is more true than actuality, e.g. Holden Caulfield. Sometimes art and reality stumble.

Zobel has proposed an intriguing, disturbing concept. But he makes leaps. Compliance is a good film. I wish it had been a little better. If the French had made the film, the characters might have been more fleshed out.

Zobel moves the event from Kentucky to Ohio. Let's not offend the Kentuckians.

Compliance is the tawdry story of how a manager - Sandra (Ann Dowd) - of a fast-food restaurant receives a phone call from a man who says he's a police officer. He accuses one of her staff (Dreama Walker) of stealing from a customer's purse.

He gets Sandra to accept his orders, and in turn she becomes more compliant and assertive. She and her staff follow the instructions - no matter how absurd and illogical - that the voice dictates. In a way, Sandra is empowered and given identity by the voice. But several times writer Zobel avoids what Sandra and others would ask. Zobel takes shortcuts. He only partially earns our suspension of disbelief.

Ann Dowd has the face of an expressive dishrag as the vulnerable manager. At times her character is too much of a blank cloth. Dreama Walker is convincing as the psychologically battered girl. Bill Camp is appropriately bleary as Sandra's fiance who does something "bad." Pat Healy effectively is the perverse caller.

Zobel hits something of a universal chord. Anyone who has dealt with the actual police may have some disturbing memories. Once - in Ohio, of all places - when I was wrongfully stopped by a policeman and he refused to tell me why, it developed unpleasantly.

Flaws in logic are ok. Hitchcock once told me, "Logic is dull." But Zobel's writing and characterization do have lapses. Hitch probably would have filled them in.

Zobel has a Hitchcock moment when the caller's phone card is running out of time, and he becomes desperate.

Compliance is like a bad dream. It may not hold together, but it has a nagging impact.

Hitch would have liked that.


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