DVD Review - Compliance

Ann Dowd in "Compliance"
For several years ending in 2004, a series of phone call scams or hoaxes befell several people who worked at box stores or fast-food restaurants. The most famous case is the last one in 2004, which resulted in a police arrest. What happened is a man dialed the manager of a McDonald's and manipulated her to sexually assault an employee of that McDonald's. Craig Zobel's Compliance details how it happened in a Michael Haneke kind of way.

Ann Dowd stars as Sandra, the manager of ChickWich, a fast-food joint in Ohio. It's a busy day and things are awkward and intense. Out of nowhere, Sandra gets a phone call about one of her cashiers named Becky, played by Dreama Walker. The call is from a police officer claiming that Becky has stolen some money. The voice of that officer, Officer Daniels, tells Sandra that he needs her help to find the money, so he gradually is able to convince Sandra to strip-search Becky.

Officer Daniels is also able to get Sandra to involve other people like Sandra's fiance, Evan or just Van. Through various manipulations, Daniels is able to get Van to force Becky into doing sexual things. Eventually, Sandra discovers that Daniels isn't really a police officer. The real cops are involved and Daniels' true identity is learned.

There is then a question at the end of who is at fault or how far should the blame be spread. It's not as if Daniels had a badge or a gun pointed at Sandra's head. It's not as if Sandra or Van had a gun pointed at Becky's head. All of them to some extent voluntarily did everything that was asked of them, even when all of them knew it was wrong or didn't make sense. They could have at any point said no and ended this whole thing.

After the truth comes out, Daniels isn't questioned, but Sandra is put in the hot seat. Becky's attorneys even want to go after the restaurant's parent company for a lawsuit and it's interesting for them to both claim to be victims and not take any responsibility for what happened. Both are victims, but, given the nature of this situation, the two do share some blame for allowing what happened to occur.

Zobel puts up a title card at the end that what happened in 2004 was one of 70 incidents like this that occurred in real life. It could just be that all the people involved in those 70 incidents are stupid. 70 examples of idiocy in a short period of time are possible, but I don't want to be quick to condemn these people, and an aspect of the whole situation makes me wonder.

Compliance strikes me as a cultural touchstone, which shows the difference in the relationship between cops and white people as opposed to the relationship between cops and black people. Instead of being a 40-something or older, white woman, what if Sandra were a 40-something or older, black woman? The events might not have gone as far as it did.

It comes down to Sandra and the others being so trusting of the police, even if it's only a voice claiming to be the police. Because Sandra is so trusting, she's willing to do whatever, even when there is no motive for her to do so. If Zobel had given Sandra or Van a motive to want to do what they do outside of simply being told to do so, then that would have played better. Yet, he doesn't. We have to go on them merely having complete faith in the police.

This is something that is somewhat believable given the relationship in general that white people have with the police. Black people, however, have a different relationship, one that historically hasn't always been positive. If Americans go back to the Civil Rights Movement and to what life was like for blacks, it was clear that the police and black people were never the best of friends. That relationship has perhaps gotten better, but even today African-Americans represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population but represent 40 percent of the prison population.

From racial profiling to the whole notion of snitching, it can be reasonably argued that black people don't trust the police in the same way or perhaps as much as white people do. Therefore, if Sandra were black or if any of the people of the 70 incidents were black, the events would likely be different or not at all.

It's obvious, regardless of her ethnicity, that Sandra doesn't watch a lot of Law & Order. It's funny because Law & Order: Special Victims Unit did an episode titled "Authority," which aired in its ninth season. That episode was an adaptation of this same phone scam scenario. It starred Robin Williams. It was way more ridiculous than what goes down in Compliance, but yet far more entertaining.

If Sandra had watched any episode of Law & Order, she would be more aware of her civil liberties and that a police officer has no right to compel a citizen to do what she does, especially over the phone. It doesn't take away that Dowd and Walker give great acting performances that turn Compliance into a unique kind of thriller. Yet, Zobel relies solely on those performances and doesn't, as the writer-director, provide more to help us go along with these events.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and sexual content/nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.


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