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March 24, 2013
When a press screening kicks off with the PR spokesperson informing that during general release, the film will open with a title card warning audiences of its unsettling and unnerving content, you already know you’re in for an intriguing treat. To instantly clear all doubts, Compliance is indeed a film that needs to be experienced firsthand in order to fully comprehend the outlandish tone of its storytelling. And frankly, it’s quite obvious that the relationship with the viewers is going to be love or hate, since many people might have a hard time believing this is actually based on true events.
The simple premise is pregnant with thematic complexity and tells a story that occurs in the span of one day, confined within the four walls of a fast food joint in what could be anywhere in Middle America. The provincial and painfully dull environment of this restricted reality almost feels like a character in itself already. But once we meet the inhabitants of this bleak microcosm, we promptly realize that some of these people get a kick out of the most pathetic things in order to feel alive. Such is the case with Sandra, the middle-aged fast food manager who handles her team of high school dropout employees with a constantly condescending tone, poorly masked by a forced, cordial façade.
On a busy Friday night, Sandra gets a phone call in her office by someone who claims to be a police officer, reporting money stolen from a customer’s purse. Becky, one of the fast food employees, is accused of being the alleged thief. The film’s quick set up reveals how Sandra is not particularly fond of Becky and not just because of her evident jealousy of the young girl’s pretty looks but also because she suspects Becky was the one to leave the freezer open the night before (resulting in part of the stock going to waste). The consequence of it all is Sandra following the officer’s instructions on how to handle Becky while he’s on his way there. Becky is kept on hold in the back room for the rest of the evening, where she’s questioned and searched until things start to progressively escalate for the unpredictable worse.
No risk of spoilers here since writer/director Craig Zobel (at his sophomore effort) soon enough recurs to dramatic irony, revealing to the audience how the phone call is nothing more than a very sadistic prank (and a nation-wide, serial one at that). The filmmaker’s interest is focused on how extremely contorted human nature can stretch itself out to be. The result is a social study exploring the almost surreal, grotesque, albeit realistically disturbing deviance we can discover within ourselves when crippled by the insecurities and dissatisfactions of a life wasted on the fringe. Helped by a cast in state of grace, especially the terrifically subdued Ann Dowd (Sandra) and the genuinely innocent Dreama Walker (Becky), Compliance is a messed up, crazy ride difficult to shake off.
Compliance is in cinemas now.