Entertainment » Movies


by Jake Mulligan
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Aug 17, 2012
Dreama Walker in "Compliance"
Dreama Walker in "Compliance"  

The scariest horror movie of the year isn't about serial killers, paranormal activity, or any other standard slasher fare. Instead it's about people, ignorance, stupidity, and authority. It's about "Compliance."

Craig Zobel's second feature is derived from a disgusting true story, and many people are going to find it very difficult to watch. He's adapting what has become known as the "McDonald's Strip Search Prank Call," which is as infamous in true crime circles as it is in sociological ones. Like an evil-minded Milgram experiment (look it up if you must), the case displayed people's weakness for trusting authority over their own judgment with damning results.

Dreama Walker in "Compliance"  

A man, claiming to be a police officer, would continually call fast food restaurants, vaguely describing a young female employee to a manager, then ascertaining that she had stolen over the past few hours. The shock comes not in the criminals’ perversity but in his success: over 70 restaurants fell for the prank to one degree or another, with the manager strip-searching and detaining the young employee while describing every step of the "action" to the criminal. And in some (not just one) cases, he could get those involved so steamed up that the seemingly innocuous searches would be twisted, through his instructions, into full scale sexual assaults. It’s shocking, terrible, an unforgivable reflection on the human psyche, and it’s 100% true.

And so Zobel crafts his all-American fast food restaurant - the ChickWich - complete with an achingly working-class manager who’s overstressed about the fact that she’s understaffed (Ann Dowd), and a very pretty, very normal teenage blonde girl at the counter (newcomer Dreama Walker). I’ve probably already revealed too much about the case that serves as the film’s inspiration (the film does live and die on slight escalations of tone and narrative), but needless to say this real-time retelling is nothing less than an exercise in torturing an audience. The look - complete with constant cuts to broiling fry machines and uncleaned counters - will make you want to pause the movie to take a shower, and the slow-burn of the assault ranks this with some of the most uncomfortable viewings in recent years.

Writer/director Craig Zobel  

It’s got to be said that most will find almost nothing to like in this film. It’s punishing, unforgiving, and is the last thing you should buy a ticket to if you’re simply looking for a good time at the movies. Zobel is tying together so many of the worst American traits - whether it’s the day-to-day nature of retail employer-employee relationship, where bacon is valued over people; or the tendency to cater to figures of authority far past the point where it’s robbed us of our own will and respect - that you can’t help but feel implicated in all the madness. The movie’s brilliance is in just how repellant it is.

Sure, we all sit there and say, "Well I’d be too smart for this." But from the set design to the "business comes first" and "we’re always in a rush" attitudes, everything here just feels so damn familiar. I don’t care how much you hold yourself above the victims and perpetrators, "Compliance" hits close to home.

And the real-time construction, as tight as a drum, leaves you no room to breathe, escape, or relax. The cuts to our villain, played with an admirable sliminess by Pat Healy and written with a cynical sense of unintelligence - he keeps messing up his story, which flies over the heads of our ’heroes’ - by Zobel, only make watching his ’success’ even more uncomfortable. By revealing him and his methods so early, we’re not just horrified, we’re implicated as accomplices.

Ann Dowd in "Compliance"  

Unfortunately, I think Zobel goes too far here - not in what he depicts, but in what he suggests. In adapting one particular incident, he allows the strip search and the detainment to devolve into full scale assault, an event he’s unwilling to photograph as calmly and starkly as he has the previous events. Unfortunately, in going for this suggestive tone, he ends up implicating the victim as being "compliant" as much as her attackers. I must admit this (suggesting that the girl is as much to blame for her rape as her rapists are) is where I think he goes too far; it’s an idea that isn’t fleshed out and brief research into the "true" case suggests this is the one point where he deviates from the record. I can’t help but assume Zobel felt a suggested attack on a calm girl would be more palatable to the audience than would a brutal attack on an "uncompliant" girl. But the fact is, in implicating her he becomes as much of a villain as the caller he deconstructs.

But still, subtextual missteps aside, this is a must-see for Zobel’s airtight structure if for nothing else (seriously, this man doesn’t allow a second of levity into the proceedings - he was born for genre horror.) And that’s discounting the fact that this film, which you could read as nothing less than a takedown of the entirety of the human psyche, has stuck with me, perhaps dragging my mood down, for weeks. I still haven’t stopped contemplating its many suggestions and (sometimes dubious) insinuations. A good time at the movies this is not. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a good movie.

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