Matthew Reddin

“Compliance” a film that’s hard to shake

This horrifying film inspires a visceral reaction that makes it tough to justify seeing, despite excellent acting and insightful questioning.

By - Oct 8th, 2012 04:00 am
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Dreama Walker in “Compliance,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Last Monday night, I drove to the Downer Theatre, flashed my press pass and sat down to watch Compliance. When it was over, I got up, drove home, and immediately wrote this review.

This is abnormal because I don’t always begin writing a review the first instant I get in front of a keyboard. I usually take a few hours to think about it and wrestle with some of the issues raised before beginning, and occasionally, I go so far as to jot down a number of key points and sleep on it, waking early in the morning to flesh out the review with a clearer head.

I didn’t need to sleep on Compliance. Hell, if I’d brought my laptop with me to the theater I might have written it in my car.

This film is horrifying. Terrifying. Soulchilling. And no matter how “good,” or “well-crafted” it was (and the amoral, objective critic within me avers it is exceedingly well-crafted), I do not know if it can get past those things.

Here is a synopsis of Compliance: The overworked, underappreciated manager of a fast food restaurant gets a phone call on the busiest day of the week from a man who says he is a cop. He is not a cop. The not-cop tells the manager that a young female cashier, 19 years of age, has stolen money from a woman and she needs to be held until he arrives. He then convinces this manager, a succession of employees, the manager’s boyfriend and the cashier herself to be complicit in her mental and physical assault until one person finally sees through the charade and calls the real police.

In any other film review, I might here go into detail about the film’s incredible acting, or comment on the handful of structural problems in the film. But I am not going to. Both of those things are true about Compliance, and others will surely detail them. The details that stick out for me are the feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I realized this movie was going exactly where it had promised to go and the feeling I got when it got there.

Ann Dowd in “Compliance.”

What this fake cop tells his victims to do are not unspeakable things, in a certain sense. I could list them and not lose sleep over it. What has shaken me is both the fact that these characters go through with those acts nonetheless, and the fact that real people have done the same. Compliance, as a film, is fictional, but it is not exclusively the work of some particularly dark-minded director (Craig Zobel, in case you were wondering). More than 70 similar cases were reported over a decade, a string ending with the most serious case, the one Compliance is based on. In each, a man convinced regular people to act out his fantasies, and the people on the other end went along with those dark, sadistic fantasies without refusing.

Which is the worse offense? I don’t know. I don’t care.

What I do know is that I will find it difficult to recommend this film to other people. And I find it difficult to justify that to myself.

I believe it is a well-made film, with an ability to impact an audience in a way they may never have experienced, and that it is important in general for films to push boundaries and make audiences uncomfortable if necessary. I know thinking about dark, twisted things like this is one way to be aware of our tendency to comply over contend, and that I would not have as deep an understanding of that dynamic without seeing it.

I also believe that there is something about this film that makes it the opposite of necessary, and that it is not something I feel audiences should have to experience. I also know that I would trade that understanding for not having had this experience, even knowing how important that understanding is.

I do not know how to reconcile those thoughts, and I do not expect to for quite some time.

Compliance will next screen in Milwaukee on Oct. 27 and 28, at 7 p.m. at UWM’s Union Theatre.

The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at the Oriental TheatreDowner Theatre and Fox-Bay Cinema. Check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides for films opening this weekend and throughout October. For more information, visit the MFF website.

Categories: Movies

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