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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 08.17.12] thriller drama



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At one point in time the moniker "inspired by true events" was cause for audiences to pay a little more attention to a movie but over the years this has been so overused, that the words no longer hold the intrigue they once did. If anything, the words are now generally accompanied by an eye roll because we all know what's coming: an over dramatic or horrific (or occasionally romantic) adaptation of some quickly forgotten occurrence. If a movie fails, the words don't mean anything but if it the movie happens to be good, those words are an in for further discussion.


Unlike the majority of its counterparts, writer/director Craig Zobel seems to have stuck pretty closely to the events as they truly unfolded, a wise choice considering how traumatizing the true events are. Compliance retells an incident that unfolded over a few hours in 2004 when a man identifying himself as a police officer called a local fast food restaurant and accused an employee of stealing from a customer's purse. Claiming shortage of staff due to a larger investigation concerning the employee in question, the man on the telephone convinced the restaurant manager as well as a number of other individuals, to perform questionable tasks including a strip search and various sexual acts.

For his adaptation, Zobel brings on Dreama Walker (most recently seen as the sweet roommate in the sardonic TV sitcom "Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23") as Becky, the accused and Ann Dowd as Sandra, the compliant restaurant manager. Zobel surrounds the events at the centre of the story with a brilliantly simple set-up. In the film's opening 20 minutes we get a sense for all of these characters and the kind of people we think they are: Becky a young, perky teen who is in a constant state of change (be it her various boyfriends or her phone) and Sandra as an older, unhip, trying-too-hard and unhappy employee. When Sandra first receives the phone call she seems a bit confused by the requests but follows the instructions, at first reluctantly but then with more assurance, seemingly empowered by the callers' praises.

Compliance doesn't tread new territory, stories of obedience to authority aren't anything new, but Zobel chooses to play everything here small. The scenes are intimate, most limited to two or three characters, and the performances are contained. The characters never go into hysterics and when Becky becomes agitated, she's instantly chastised and ordered to calm down. Compliance's best moments are the unspoken ones, scenes where the actors, all excellent, communicate silently; a small tear from Dowd as she reveals to Walker that the officer wants her to remove all of her clothing, including her underwear, the look of shock and grief of Bill Camp as Van, Sandra's fiance who is called in to watch Becky, as the officer outlines the next step, and finally Walker's performance as Becky, the young woman who silently suffers through these humiliations, all under the impression that not doing so will only make things worse.

In Compliance's second and third acts Zobel trusts in the audience's intelligence to fill in the gaps, editing the scenes to show just enough to suggest what has just unfolded rather than showing it all. The editing is effective and just as the profundity of the scenes start to unfold he's onto the next moment. Compliance is at its best in the final act when the call is discovered to be a hoax and we see the characters deal with the aftermath of the phone call. Though there is a misstep with a short scene of Becky consulting a lawyer (this feels completely unnecessary), the film ends brilliantly with Sandra as the interview subject for a television news show, an interview that encompasses the turmoil suffered by those involved.

Compliance is likely to spark debates about everything from the old argument of the blind following of authority to whether the events actually happened the way in which they are portrayed but Zobel brings some other interesting ideas to the table. What of the fact that the caller uses blackmail to keep everyone in check and yet no one questions it? or that the man who essentially puts an end to the ordeal is a sleazy looking maintenance guy? and perhaps most interestingly the fact that a teenager refuses to follow the caller's requests while most of the characters who follow-through are older?

Occasionally infuriating (from at outsider's perspective it seems ridiculous that anyone would comply with the caller's requests), Compliance isn't always easy to watch but Zobel strikes a few soft spots and creates an effective psychological thriller where the characters' fears are their own worst enemies.

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