Film: ‘Compliance’ (2012)

Magnolia Pictures

Based on true events, Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” is a chilling exploration of fear, subservience to authority in the workplace and violations of personal boundary issues – three Saturnine themes that Zobel takes to a devastating conclusion.

The setting is a Chickwich fast-food establishment that’s managed by Sandra (Ann Dowd). Sandra, a conscientious middle-aged supervisor, is keenly aware of her responsibilities to upper management and the age-gap that separates her from her less committed and not especially diligent young employees.

On the movie’s life-changing day, Sandra gets a phone call from a man who identifies himself as police officer Daniels (Pat Healy). Daniels tells her that her low-level employee Becky (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing money from one of the establishment’s customers. And because Daniels is unable to immediately investigate these charges on Sandra’s premises, he requests Sandra to conduct the procedures he’ll spell out to establish Becky as the thief.

Sandra, who knows only how to follow the rules and never thinks to confirm Daniels’ credentials, complies. So does Becky, who is told she’ll be hauled off to police headquarters and spend time in jail, if she doesn’t.

Initially, the tasks that Daniels assigns Sandra involve examining Becky’s personal property, such as her cell phone and purse. But Daniels’ requests quickly result in Becky’s gradual disrobing and, later, physical invasiveness. Sandra, who’s beset by other mayhem on the premises, enlists the help of other employees – and even her fiancé – to do the increasingly unspeakable.

Although Sandra is uneasy with playing the Saturnine authority figure, Daniels – we see him gloating at home over his easy marks – knows how to flatter Sandra with respect and praise, Saturn’s domain. And as an authority figure himself who plays up ties to law enforcement, Daniels also demands that everyone address him as “sir” or “officer.” Without a strong sense of identity – Saturn’s bailiwick, again – a person will look for external compliments to fill self-esteem gaps.

Sandra finally does speak with her immediate supervisor at corporate headquarters but by then it’s too late. There’s no better way to suggest that authority is an internal mechanism not beholding to an external figurehead than by making the powers-that-be – an entity that could spare her from further decision-making – unreachable.

Those who feel the events in “Compliance” are unrealistically overblown might be surprised to learn that in this country – the movie provides this info as a coda – that 70 incidents in more than two dozen states have involved telephone-related hoaxes in which callers said they were cops who perpetrated similar scenarios.

Zobel’s fascination with what and how we hear – Saturn also rules that sensory trait – makes “Compliance” a gut-wrenching viewing experience.

Rating: ♄ (Saturn)

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