Published on June 27th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant



I have to go against the grain with my review of Compliance — a movie that is getting pretty decent reviews across the board (though it wasn’t without its controversy at Sundance).  My reviews are usually spoiler free, but I will warn you that I can’t properly discuss it without revealing some plot details.

Compliance goes to great pains to let us know that it is based on a true story, but it doesn’t tell you what important details they fudged, which is why the movie was ultimately frustrating for me.  It is about a fast food manager who is convinced to detain one of her employees by a prank caller, who is pretending to be a police officer.  What results is a horrible nightmare and repeated sexual assaults.  The film plays on smart themes of famous research like the Milgram Experiments, which measured the willingness of subjects to disobey their own personal code because they needed to please an authority figure.

I will admit, my first reaction was, “this is stupid.  Why wouldn’t you ask to see a badge in person before you strip-searched someone?  Why wouldn’t the manager call her district manager to verify he had agreed to the detaining of the employee?  This is not a controlled experiment.  No one would be that stupid.”

And I have to eat those words — upon looking it up, I found that there had been quite a few incidents in the States of this happening, though they were usually short and ended at the victim being strip searched.   But the incident that makes me eat my words is one that happened in Kentucky at a McDonald’s that unfolded much like the events of the movie.  (Key Words: much like.  There’s an important distinction coming).

Here’s the rub:

To make a movie like this, especially if it seems unbelievable, you still have to bring the audience with you.  There was a lot of cheating going on in Compliance.  Most of the real life events ended when someone else came into the room to find their keys.  And most of them didn’t involve several players.  Compliance has people coming and going, each taking a turn talking to the prankster on the phone, some assaulting the victim worse than others, but none of them ever comparing information.  As it unfolds, the movie goes to greater and greater lengths to avoid having one person say to the other, “hey, isn’t this weird?  You think this is on the level?  They just told me to strip search her!”  This pulled me out of the ‘reality’ of the film and didn’t happen in real life.  They had to add characters to increase the drama of the film, but they cheated in getting where they wanted to go, which pulls a viewer out of the movie.

In the case of the manager asking her fiancé to guard the victim — this was true to life.  However, the fiancé wasn’t talked into spanking her.  He was a drunken hillbilly who took the nightmare to the next level.  She was supposed to kiss him, and when she refused (which the victim doesn’t bother to do in the film), he took it upon himself to get violent and assault her.  It’s here that the movie does itself a grave disservice — had they played it on screen the way it unfolded in life, that some drunken hillbilly got power crazy and sexually assaulted her, it would have been a horrifying and unexpected twist, like the hillbilly rape scene in Deliverance.

And don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying it has to happen as it did in real life, of course films are dramatized, but I’m saying that changing those things has ramifications on whether you buy into the story.  Truth really is stranger than fiction — but a movie is still a movie, and you have to bring the audience with you.

The other major thing that doesn’t ring true in Compliance is the tone.  It is billed as, and could have been, a harrowing and horrific drama — but it’s played for titillating exploitation and borderline black comedy.  It’s less like Deliverance, and more like The Devil’s Rejects.  The biggest piece of evidence is an unintentionally comedic shot up the length of a straw during the scene where the victim is forced to give the fiancé a blowjob.  That would be like putting a shot of a train going into a tunnel during the Deliverance rape scene.  And while I love exploitation movies, the filmmakers can’t ask me to buy into the seriousness of it, while conversely not treating it that way themselves.

I have to quickly mention the acting, which for the most part, was actually quite good.  I believed everyone (even if I didn’t believe the script), especially Ann Dowd (the manager) and Bill Camp (the fiancé).  The only person I didn’t believe was Dreama Walker (the victim) who existed just to be the object for victimization (I would argue, for the audience as well).  She didn’t seem all that concerned when she was being accused of theft, not even when it became apparent that it wasn’t going to sort itself out.  She sat naked, picking at her fingernail with a disinterested look on her face.  I won’t fault that near the end, as I’m guessing someone would be blank with terror after facing what she faced, but her performance didn’t build to that, so I can’t credit her then either.

While I had to admit that people did indeed fall for this prank a lot more than I originally spouted off, I also have to admit that the movie obviously elicited a response from me, unlike the mainstream movie I had to review this weekend (the so-mediocre-it-hurt-my-brain Trouble with the Curve, with Clint Eastwood).  And to me, that’s what a good movie experience should be.  I left annoyed enough to look all this stuff up and waste part of my Sunday ranting about it online.  So while I am still frustrated to no end, I also have to admit that this means it made me feel something.  It made me think about the themes.  It made me think about filmmaking and how to properly execute a movie like this.  It made me wish the idea had been given the execution it deserved.

2 Dorks out of 5 on the Geek-o-Meter.  I can’t give it zero because it had a lot of good qualities, but I can’t give it a decent grade, because it was too flawed in its execution.


About the Author

is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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