Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Phil Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson
US theatrical: 17 Aug 2012 (Limited release)
“You’re fucked without bacon, I’ll tell you that.” Aggravated before her day begins, Sandra (Ann Dowd) argues with a delivery truck driver (Matt Servitto), aware that he’s right, that she has not managed her Chickwich shop effectively, but also used to being right, and so rather unwilling to admit responsibility for what’s gone wrong. That would be the lack of bacon, incurred when the shop’s freezer door was left open overnight. Now she’s got a Friday rush coming on, at least one careless employee, and lip from this driver.
Sandra’s day gets a lot worse in Compliance, but so slowly she’s unaware of how bad and also, how she’s responsible. In both aspects, Sandra is as willfully ignorant and self-involved as anyone, which is to say, hardly exceptional. And this is what makes Craig Zobel’s film so chilling, that what Sandra and assorted employees do for the next few hours seems, at least at first, unremarkable.
What they do begins when Sandra receives a phone call from an apparent authority figure, a man who says he’s at Chickwich regional headquarters and calls himself Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), she goes along. He has taped evidence, he says, that a worker named Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer’s purse. Because he’s off-site, conducting a search of Becky’s home based on vague “drug charges,” he says he needs Sandra to search Becky, then monitor her until he arrives; he needs her, he says, to serve as his “eyes on the ground.”
Daniels’ phrasing might give pause to some listeners. It’s an inept and creepily effective metaphor, one of several red flags indicating that something’s amiss with this guy (your sense is confirmed when the film early on shows him at home, and not a cop at all). Daniels’ requests for information and demands for action sound odious and ridiculous, but still, he persuades Sandra to search Becky’s locker and bag, and then her person.
It’s not a little disconcerting that he convinces both Sandra and Becky to go through with a strip search, though the ground for that compliance—so obviously inappropriate—is established early. Dowdy and middle-aged Sandra tries too hard to keep up with Becky, interrupting a conversation about cellphones and dates with her own information, that her boyfriend “sexts” her, and also that “He knows what to do to get me wound up.” Becky, preoccupied with her recently purchased pink cellphone cover (“Pink’s my new thing”), is visibly out off: both she and her coworker roll their eyes when Sandra walks off (“Who calls it sexting anymore!?”). All by way of introducing the women’s mutual resentment, suggesting how they see one another as they obey Daniels’ increasingly preposterous directives.
This may be Compliance‘s most distressing notion, that these two women, both visibly women uneasy with what they’re doing and unsure of the man instructing them, go along. Maybe they’re competing, maybe they’re just trying too hard to be good girls, maybe they see no options. Each is certainly isolated, psychically anyway, by her conversations with Daniels. On the phone, both glance uneasily at the other as he speaks; Becky and Sandra don’t share their apprehensions with each other, but instead, they nod and comply.
Their isolation—even as they spend long minutes standing within three feet of one another—is key to the film’s tale (and rudimentary analysis) of bad behavior: “people” here do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do if left alone and feeling fearful, or even just feeling instructed, apparently. This isn’t the case for every individual in the film: Sandra’s assistant manager Martie (Ashley Atkinson) is skeptical, and a teenage cashier, Kevin (Phillip Ettinger) is downright put off by directives to inspect Becky’s naked body and participate in her humiliation. But Sandra and Becky, however different they may be with regard to age or hopefulness or familiarity with cellphones, are troublingly similarly reductive “women” in the face of an unseen male authority.
On one level, Daniels’ experiment is generic and Stanley Milgramish, as he manipulates his easiest marks, Sandra and Becky, so they end up where he wants them. On another, however, the structure is very specifically gendered. Just so, Sandra, worried about perceptions of her “management” skills from the film’s first scene (when she’s lost the bacon and also learns a “secret shopper” is on his way, in order to assess her shop’s compliance with corporate rules and expectations). Her repeated exits from the back room where Becky waits, wearing only an apron as her clothes are confiscated to Sandra’s car, allow her not to know precisely what’s going on. (One blandly disturbing shot follows closely on Sandra’s back as she deposits Becky’s clothes in her car, making sure to leave it unlocked so the “officer” can come fetch the package at his convenience.)
But even as Sandra gives up authority to Daniels, she absorbs his commendations, that she’s doing his bidding and so being a good citizen, a good manager of this particular crisis. She’s responsible but not. Becky’s ostensible lack of responsibility works differently, her obvious victimization potentially (and again, distressingly) aligned with her beauty and carelessness. In the back room, the camera is ominously close, awkwardly angled, mobile and occasionally cutting to surveillance camera footage—not exactly “found,” but underlining the act of looking and more disturbingly, how looking is an act, a decision taken that has consequences that are moral, emotional, and, at least theoretically, legal.
The looking is your problem as much as it’s the women’s. If Sandra is assigned to look at Becky and Becky accepts being looked at and even looks back—accusatory, hurt, betrayed—you feel that you’re caught looking if you give the film even a few minutes’ thought. You might judge Sandra or Becky or Sandra’s low-rent boyfriend Van (Bill Camp), who conveniently has had a few beers when he shows up to help her look after Becky. But you’re part of the process, even if you think you’re only looking to see how dumb or wrong they can be. In this, Compliance might recall Rear Window or Blue Velvet or maybe the Saws, in that its focus is less the story unfolding before you than the framing of the story, by voyeurs within or without, people whose payments for looking are either too dreadful or not nearly dreadful enough.
It might be especially creepy that the initial voyeur here—Daniels—is not looking in any conventional sense, not seeing via telephoto lenses, closet slats or hidden cameras. He’s imagining what he’s narrating, and, you imagine, the essence of his perverse pleasure is the discomfort he causes his players. It’s about power, of course, but it’s about not being (feeling) responsible: the proxies who do the criminal’s bidding suffer mightily, but also weirdly and unevenly. They both feel victimized but can’t say how. They complied, which complicates their different abjections. When Sandra sits down for a TV interview after the crime, you see that her troubles are not even beginning to end.