Dreama Walker as Becky being questioned by Sandra and Marti.
COMPLIANCE, film based on true events, written and directed by Craig Sobel, starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Philip Ettinger, and Pat Healy.
By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
The shocking, cringe-worthy film, “Compliance,” has the look of a cinema verité documentary. It takes place during winter in a small-town strip-mall fast-food restaurant with problems of spoiled food due to employee negligence and an illness related short-staff. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager, a stressed-out, heavy-set, middle-age woman, gets a phone call from a man saying that he’s Police Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) who unfortunately can’t take the time to go out there in person because he’s very busy. He tells her that one of her customer’s complained that an employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), stole money out of her purse an hour ago; she’s with Daniels now along with Sandra’s boss, the franchise owner. The mostly young staff is on edge as it is; Sandra has warned them that a company “secret shopper” is coming in to rate the place.
When Daniels asks Sandra to take Becky into the break room and search her purse, you know something is not kosher. From merely rummaging through her purse, the search escalates incrementally, orchestrated by Daniels as the rest of the oblivious staff out front continues serving the steady stream of hungry customers. He cows and intimidates Sandra, flatters her so that she’ll do anything he asks. A foreshadowing scene occurs early in the film between Sandra and Becky so that when she takes his side, even referring to Becky as a thief, it rings true. The cook, Kevin (Philip Ettinger) and a grizzled supplier (Matt Servitto) are the only ones who aren’t fooled. Sensing things are not right, they make phone calls.
The fact that the entire film is based on telephone dialogue neither constricts nor undermines the suspense and pace. Plus, the camera breaks it up with shots of customers chowing down in booths; rusted, greasy equipment, dirty dishwater, piles of discarded cartons and wrappers (Chef Ramsey would be appalled), and a parking lot rimmed with melting snow-drifts. Soon scene will segue to a bland-looking, early fortyish man in sweater and slacks, sitting in front of a littered desk, or making a sandwich, with a phone to his ear.
Daniels threatens Becky with jail-time and fabricates drug deals, implicating her. Confused, she denies everything, protests his demands, and insists that she’s innocent. He tells her frequently to calm down and insists that she address him as “sir” or “officer.” He ensures that there is only one person at a time in the room with her. Becky, who now sits naked, covered only by an apron, ends up allowing Sandra, her assistant, Marti (Ashley Atkinson), as well as Sandra’s balding, sheepish, beer-drinking fiancé, Van (Bill Camp), to carry out Daniels’ phone directed, step-by step searches tantamount to those perpetrated on prisoners suspected of concealing contraband in bodily orifices. Daniels rewards Van for conducting the most egregious search with a sex act by Becky.
You ask yourself why Sandra and the others allowed this to happen. People are conditioned through religion, education, and government to obey the law and not to question authority. The man spoke convincingly, repeatedly stating that he was an officer of the law, asking, “Don’t you want to do the right thing?” “Help me out here,” and “The sooner you do this, the sooner it’ll all be over,” interspersed with threats. Also, he had done his homework on these people, knew their weaknesses and used the information to his advantage.
Can we use the message of the film to explain how tyrannical, imperialistic governments gain control of its citizens? How 100s of thousands of people are coerced into leaving their homes and boarding freight cars that will take them to their deaths? How millions of innocent people are driven from their lands, herded into reservations, or concentration camps as were Japanese citizens in California? Can it explain the exploitation of women? Minorities? The undocumented, and so on?
Though this cringe-inducing film takes place in the restaurant, mostly in the back room, it is not claustrophobic. The acting feels natural, you sense that these are real, hardworking people asked to carry out unspeakable acts on an innocent person.