by Alex Greenberger
Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” is based on an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” But make no mistake—“Compliance” transcends the boundaries of “Law and Order,” with some pretty nasty content and artful work from Zobel behind the camera. It’s truly Zobel who controls “Compliance” through and through, and this is no accident. For a movie about submission to falsified authority, it only seems fitting that Zobel knows how to almost brainwash his audience into keeping their eyes glued to a story this gruesome.
At its start, “Compliance” doesn’t seem particularly insidious. Zobel’s smart script lures its viewer right into its trap with a likeable heroine, Becky (Dreama Walker, “Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23”), a cashier at a fast-food restaurant. She worries about whether her bedazzled phone is losing its jewels, and which of her three potential guy friends she should pursue a sexual relationship with, and even why she works Friday night shifts.
What she doesn’t worry about is whether her boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd), will sexually assault her numerous times in the next three and a half hours in response to a phone caller who claims to be a policeman asking for her to strip search Becky for money she didn’t steal. As luck would have it, this does indeed happen, and it actually did happen in a real incident in 2004—and not just once, but 72 times.
“Compliance’s” dramatized rendition of one of these true atrocities reinvents itself several times throughout the film by changing genre. An “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” title card in a blocky, bold white font makes it immediately apparent that this is something of an exploitative horror film, as it is the same typeface that Rob Zombie is so fond of. But as the film progresses and its twisted nature reveals itself, “Compliance” morphs into a truly terrifying genre work. The genre change is disorienting, to say the least—you almost never know what Zobel is going to throw at you next.
This, of course, is exactly what Zobel wants, however—he wants to make “Compliance” a joyless experience. It wouldn’t really have been that hard to do it anyway, since he has the exceptional performances of Dowd and Walker to rely on. And it is needless to say that the material itself is harrowing on its own.
Yet Zobel—and “Compliance” is his second feature, mind you—knows how to create discomfort with great mastery. For most of the film, Zobel confines our poor heroine-victim within the claustrophobic setting of a Chickwich storage room (although maybe it is Sandra who is the victim, in this tense, Fassbinder-like power play?). Every single shot in this film is framed in an undesirable, intrusive way, typically with a box obscuring half of the frame, or an atypically composed confrontation between two individuals. It’s all a way of Zobel telling his viewer where to look and, more importantly, how to look.
Despite a few amateurish montages that pad the film’s short runtime, Zobel’s direction is nearly flawless, a perfect example of fine genre filmmaking. But his writing is sharp, too, and just as unusual as his direction.
The screenplay for “Compliance” makes notable use of humor. Sexual assault and humor go together like oil and vinegar. Yet in “Compliance,” the two mingle disturbingly well. A line like, “I need you to spank her,” comes up, and you might giggle, because it is so ridiculous. You might let out a few more laughs when you realize these unfortunate characters just can’t say “no.” But then you imagine Zobel saying something along the lines of, “Is that really funny, sir?” And then, in the ultimate act of compliance, Zobel makes you answer him. He’s made you shake your head, or maybe even mouth the word to yourself—“No.”
Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.