Compliance is the second feature from writer/director Craig Zobel. It is a movie of faceless authority and how helpless we can be to it. Right out of the gate, we are told that the movie is “inspired by true events.” The events that this story pulls from are specific but also a stand-in for greater and more expansive events in human history. I just wanted to help out. I was just following orders. I just did what I was told. Excuses we tell ourselves to absolve us of our actions.

Compliance is not a film of entertainment; it is a film of propaganda. Not one with political allegiances, but one that informs us of the world we inhabit. We watch movies of propaganda differently than we do movies of entertainment. You don’t have to go very deep into Compliance before you realize that this isn’t going to end well and nobody is going to be okay. When that becomes apparent, your mind has the ability to switch gears, leading you to either refuse to acknowledge it, call it trash and walk out, or re-evaluate how you are seeing it. Is this a lesson? What am I supposed to learn from this? How does this inform me of the world around me?

The events of the film take place in modern-day Ohio at a fast-food restaurant on a Friday. Fridays are always busy days for food establishments, and last night, someone left the freezer door open, and $15,000 worth of frozen food has spoiled. That and they are short on pickles and bacon. These may seem trivial, maybe even comical, but the manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) doesn’t think so. This is her life, and a shortage of bacon could result in a reprimand from the regional supervisor or possibly even a termination. Considering the current economic climate in Ohio, that would be a devastating blow to Sandra. None of this is verbally stated, yet it hangs over the characters, allowing what happens next to seem all the more plausible.

A phone call takes Sandra from the rush. The caller is Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), and he informs her that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen $50 from a customer. Officer Daniels very calmly tells Sandra that the cops are busy with a much bigger investigation and that her cooperation will be much appreciated by both the police office and Sandra’s regional manager. Not wanting to upset the apple cart any more than she has, Sandra relents and takes Becky into the back. What begins as a simple search and seizure of personal effects will end with sexual assault and rape.

The movie is small and confined but populated with a collection of very well-drawn-out characters, all of who operate very differently. Officer Daniels, who is no officer at all, tests each person’s threshold, trying to see who he can push and how far. Sandra needs a little extra coaxing, but her fear of authority and failing is so much so that she is willing to go along with just about anything asked of her. Becky’s friend and co-worker, Kevin (Philip Ettinger), is a typical mouthy teenager, and when asked to do something he doesn’t want to, he refuses. The shift manager, Marti (Ashley Atkinson), knows what is happening is wrong, but she silently plays witness to the events because she, too, doesn’t want to stick her neck out for anyone. Sandra’s fiancé of sorts, Van (Bill Camp), enters the scene, and things go oh so wrong for poor Becky, but oh so right for Officer Daniels. Van is a beaten man, beaten by his job, beaten by his life, beaten by his future fiancé. When he goes out to have beers with his buddy, he calls to check in with Sandra, even though he doesn’t have to. On first viewing, this seems like a simple throw-away scene, maybe even a cute one between them. Further consideration reveals that it is not a throw-away but perfectly sums their relationship up. Van enters the scenario with just the perfect amount of baggage that Officer Daniels could hope for. He has guilt, he has regrets, and he has things inside him repressed so badly that he is a gift to Officer Daniels. Fear is an easy way to exploit a person. Guilt is even better.

Why does Officer Daniel ask him to do what he does? This clearly is about power and not sexual perversion. Daniels occupies himself in rather mundane ways while giving orders on the phone. He makes a sandwich, drinks soda, smokes a cigarette… Daniels hasn’t hacked into the close circuit cameras to watch; he doesn’t breath heavily into the phone, he never touches himself; why are all of his demands of a sexual and derogatory nature? One possibility is that Daniels is exploiting Van’s repressed sexual desires. Does he suggest jumping jacks, ankle grabbing, cavity searches, and spanking because he knows that is what Van secretly wants? Their sequence climaxes with Becky performing oral sex on Van, presumably suggested by Officer Daniels, but the request happens off-screen, so we can never be sure. Between the two of them, Van seems to be more upset by the situation, and he leaves, only to call a buddy, “Can I come over? I did something bad.”

What about Becky? What baffles me about her character is how deadened she is to each request. Maybe Officer Daniels is exploiting her desires and inner demons as well. Early in the movie, we learn that she is carrying on a relationship with three men simultaneously. The true nature of each relationship is not revealed, but we can guess. Becky resists Officer Daniels’ strange request at first, pleading her innocence, but when Van enters the picture, she performs with the distance of a drugged prostitute. She accepts her spanking, Van’s leering gaze, and apparently the suggestion of performing oral sex. Why would she go along with this, especially since she knows deep down that her brother isn’t in trouble and that she didn’t steal the money? Kafka would say that she feels guilty for something. Sometimes we are punished. We don’t always know why we are punished and what for, but we accept it because we probably deserve it for one thing or another.

The conclusion of the film is clunky as it tries its best to remind us that this can and has happened several times in our own backyard. It is unnecessary to tell us this again, and the last few minutes play out in a bizarre manner. A quick partnership between a cop and a detective manages to track Daniels down and presumably bring him to justice. Sandra agrees to go on a news show where both Zobel and the journalist condemn her for going along with Daniel’s requests. It seems unnecessary to include this in the film. Zobel does one thing very right; he refuses to explain Officer Daniels’ actions. Daniels is an average-looking man with a nice house, a daughter that he seems to love, and a job he is probably very good at. We never learn why he does what he does, what he gets out of it, and how he chooses his victims. There is a sense of randomness at work that makes it all seem even more realistic. We never even learn his real name. He is just another person in this very vast world of ours.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Compliance (2012)
Written and Directed By: Craig Zobel
Produced By: Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Theo Sena, Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, Ashlie Atkinson, James McCaffrey, Matt Servitto
Magnolia Pictures, Running time 90 minutes, Released on August 19, 2012.