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1 review, 3 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"For A Bad Time, Call. . ."
4 stars

Is it me or are you getting the strangest feeling that the American Beef Council's holy war against the purveyors of fried chicken have finally made significant strides in their efforts to taint the good name of poultry forever? A few weeks ago, there was "Killer Joe" and its jaw-dropping (no pun intended) sequence in which a KFC leg is put to an extraordinarily depraved use in the hands of genial psychopath Matthew McConaughey. That was followed up by the whole Chick-Fil-A kerfuffle, the details of which I shall not rehash here. Now there is "Compliance," a dark and despairing drama in which a counter worker at a suburban Ohio fast-food chicken joint is sequestered in a back room and forced to perform acts ranging from the unseemly to the unspeakable while diners munch away unawares only a few feet away. By the time it comes to its shocking conclusion, one almost expects the end credits to read "Brought to you by Arby's"

Taking place over the course of one long, hectic and increasingly horrifying day, the restaurant has barely even opened and harried manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already behind the 8-ball; a couple of her workers are off for the day, a cooler mishap has resulted in the loss of a lot of food and a shortage of bacon and there is worry that the corporate office may be sending in a "secret shopper" to get a better idea of what is going on. To top things off, she gets a call from someone identifying themselves as a police officer who claims that one of her workers, the pretty Becky, (Dreama Walker) allegedly stole money from the purse of a customer while it was on the counter--not only does he have a witness complaint and video of the alleged theft, he also darkly hints that she is part of a different "ongoing investigation." Because he cannot get down there at the moment, he implores Sandra to take her in a back room, search her possessions and even make her submit to a strip search in order to recover the missing money. Of course, Sandra can simply bring Becky down to the police station herself if she feels uncomfortable doing any of that but if that happens, Becky will most likely be booked and have to spend a night or two in jail before anything else can happen.

On the surface, this may not make a hell of a lot of sense to you or I but for whatever reason--maybe because she is distracted by the other workplace chaos, maybe because she doesn't want to challenge the authority of the voice on the phone for fear of getting herself into trouble, maybe because it has to be real on the basis that no one would possibly make up a story like that--Sandra goes along with every request. She even finds herself recruiting other members of the staff and even her fiancee to help her out with Becky when her presence is needed elsewhere--one kid protests the treatment of his friend and is pulled out as a result but everyone else quietly goes along with the increasingly nasty program. What they don't realize, but which we have been made privy to early on, is that the voice on the phone (Pat Healy) is not a cop at all but someone who is manipulating all of these people for reasons that are known only to him.

While watching "Compliance," virtually every viewer will at some point ask themselves "Would I follow those orders blindly like the characters?" and "When would I have realized that there was something odd about the phone calls?" In theory, most would probably answer "No" and "Right away" but in practice, the movie seems to argue, that might not be the case. For example, Sandra is not necessarily a stupid woman and there are even a couple of moments early on when she does question what she is being told, only to be deftly deflected towards another line of discussion. Her weakness is that she is too eager to please and doesn't realize what her acquiescence has inspired until it is too late and if most viewers were being honest, they would probably admit deep down that they are just like her in that regard. As things go on, some may get irritated with her as she continues to follow the increasingly insane orders and walk away from the film thinking that no one could possibly be so dumb as to not realize that something was us. I have no doubt that if you had asked that same question of the same people who were involved in the real case that this film was based on or the 70-odd similar crimes that have cropped up in the last few years, they might have said the same thing.

An even more troubling aspect--and I think this may be the most disturbing element--is Becky's own compliance in what eventually happens to her. Again, at first, it makes perfect sense that she would agree to a search of her purse and pockets based only on the word of a strange voice--if she refuses, there is an excellent chance she would lose her job for defying her superior. Once things escalate, however, she could presumably at least try to bring things to a halt by calling the caller's bluff by demanding to see a parent, cop or lawyer but she still does what she is told even when it crosses the line from the creepy to the criminal. Of course, by inspiring this line of thinking, there is the suggestion that writer-director Craig Zobel is in some way blaming the victim in part for what happened to her and that may be too discomfiting for some moviegoers to handle and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is this element that has inspired a good number of the angry walkouts that have dogged "Compliance" ever since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year.

As a provocation, "Compliance" is undeniably successful and as a movie, it isn't too bad either. There are certain points where the film does tread queasily close to the thin line separating artistic expression and outright exploitation and the epilogue that Zobel has appended to the story doesn't quite work and causes some of the power that he had built up to dissipate during the wrap-up. (That said, the explanation for the caller's ability to get people to stay on the line is ingenious.) On the other hand, the three lead performances are quite strong and Zobel has avoided the trap of trying to throw in lots of fancy visual techniques to make up for being trapped in one location for the duration--the deliberately flat look often suggests security-cam footage (though not in the Kevin Smith manner) and adds yet another level of unease to the tale. I can't say that I enjoyed watching "Compliance" or that I would rush out and get the Blu-Ray the minute it was released but I did find it to be a fascinating exploration of the depths that ordinary people will sink to in the name of blindly following authority instead of standing up and questioning it. I also found that if you are looking for the worst possible first-date movie and you can't find your copy of "Hardcore," this will do just fine.

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originally posted: 08/31/12 11:35:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/14 damalc as disturbing as anything i've seen; very close to "Funny Games" 4 stars
8/09/14 David Green Most stupid I have seen movie in the last 10 years 1 stars
12/29/12 Langano If it wasn't based on true events I woukd say it was the dumbest movie ever. 3 stars
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  17-Aug-2012 (R)
  DVD: 08-Jan-2013


  DVD: 08-Jan-2013

Directed by
  Craig Zobel

Written by
  Craig Zobel

  Ann Dowd
  Pat Healy
  Dreama Walker
  Bill Camp
  Philip Ettinger

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