Judge Not, by Tyler Smith
Craig Zobel’s Compliance starts with a middle aged fast food restaurant manager getting yelled at by a delivery man. It seems an employee at the restaurant left the freezer door open overnight and some of the condiments went bad; namely pickles. The manager tried to get a new shipment without telling her regional manager. It didn’t work out so well and now she is getting a major dressing down by the delivery man, who berates her for trying to handle this sort of thing on her own, rather than going through the proper channels.
On the surface, it would appear that this scene merely serves to set up the story, but there’s more to it than that. Compliance is a film all about submitting to authority, real or imagined. The restaurant manager, Sandra, tries to avoid dealing with her superiors and is immediately shut down, and even insulted. Certainly, this is not a mistake she will ever make again. From now on, she’s going to do everything the right way.
It’s a Friday night and the restaurant is busy, as always. The staff is a little shorthanded and, as mentioned, they don’t have any pickles. On top of all that, the company has informed Sandra that there might be a “secret shopper” stopping in that night, so everybody needs to be at the top of their game. Things are already pretty stressful. So, imagine Sandra’s dismay when she gets a call from a police officer, saying that one of the young employees, Becky, has stolen money out of a customer’s purse.
This is a very serious allegation, so Sandra pulls Becky into the back office and starts receiving directions from the officer. At first, the instructions are what one would expect: ask the basic questions, look in her purse, etc. Sandra goes along with these, and, though she is constantly protesting her innocence, so is Becky. Soon, though, things take a turn. The idea of a strip search is suggested. This sounds a little wrong to both women, but the officer assures them that he will take full responsibility. With that in mind, and with another female manager present just for safety, Becky takes off her clothes.
I wish I could say that this is the furthest extent of Becky’s vulnerability and violation, but it isn’t. It gets worse. Much worse. And throughout it all, Sandra is reassured by the police officer that he’ll take the heat for this and that she is really helping to make this go smoothly. It’s not very long into the whole process that we start to question the officer’s motives, or even if he is, in fact, a police officer at all.
This is a very uncomfortable film, to say the least. In the film lover’s community, the movie has achieved a certain level of infamy. People walked out of the Sundance screening and were openly hostile to the cast and director at the Q & A afterwards. I’ll go ahead and tell you that there were a couple of walkouts at the critics’ screening that I attended. If critics- who are presumably paid to see and talk about this movie- are walking out of the screening, you know that this movie is a very special kind of harrowing.
Perhaps people didn’t believe what they were seeing. Surely, nobody could ever do such things simply because an authoritative voice on the phone tells them to. Or maybe it’s exactly the opposite. Maybe people didn’t want to believe that so many regular, genuinely well-meaning people could be capable of such violations. Because, if these people can do it, truly any of us can.
It is in the exploration of this last idea that the film truly shines. Compliance is one of the least judgmental films I’ve ever seen. That’s not to say that it looks at the actions of the characters and sees nothing wrong with them; only that it does not adopt an air of superiority. There are some films that look at its characters and seems to say, “Certainly, you or I would never do such terrible things.” Compliance makes no such assertions. It understands that, in certain circumstances, anybody can be capable of anything.
The key to all of this is ensuring that we believe that these characters actually exist. And that is where Zobel’s knack for casting and his eye for detail play a huge role. We need to believe that these people are just like us. They don’t mean anybody harm. In order to accomplish this, Zobel wisely populated his film with lesser known actors. Nobody would watch Ann Dowd as Sandra and think, “Hey, it’s that famous actress!” There would be nobody watching the movie in anticipation for the nude scene of Hollywood superstar Dreama Walker. Few people would listen to the treachery of Pat Healy as the police officer, comparing this to his previous well-known movie villains.
I don’t use these examples to attempt to make fun of the cast for not being more successful or famous. I mention this to applaud Zobel for resisting the temptation to cast his film with a bunch of famous faces. Instead, he chooses to go with reliable, believable actors. And the fact that we may not immediately recognize them works wonders for the film’s chilling realism.
This is not to imply that the actors aren’t making bold choices. As Becky, Dreama Walker makes a decision about halfway through the film that would seem counter intuitive to the viewer. While she spends a good portion of time protesting her innocence, there comes a moment when Becky gets a little quieter. She doesn’t put up quite so much of a fight. Walker imbues these moments with a sad resignation, as though Becky finally comes to realize that anything she has to say will fall on deaf ears, so she might as well just let it happen. It is heartbreaking.
As the police officer, Pat Healy creates a character that is a special kind of insidious. His ability to effectively manipulate the characters is one of the keys to making the movie work. If he pushes too hard, or comes off a little too one note, the audience will have a hard time believing that Sandra would go along with what he is saying. And so, there is a sort of bob-and-weave style to Healy’s ability to assert his authority, while also knowing exactly when to lighten up and play it casual and supportive. This way, he is able to take the temperature of Sandra and Becky and pivot accordingly. As one of the characters mentions later in the film, “He always had an answer for me.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the solid work of Ashlie Atkinson as the assistant manager and Bill Camp as Sandra’s boyfriend. Their characters are crucial to selling the tone of the film. They are wary of what’s going on, but they are content to just go along with what is happening. Not only do they submit to the officer’s authority, but to Sandra’s, as well. Camp especially conveys an innate decency in his character, which makes it all the more unnerving when he is the one asked to do the most monstrous things.
But, of course, the film primarily revolves around Sandra, a sad woman just trying to do what she thinks is right. And Ann Dowd creates a character that we feel we’ve seen a hundred times. Not in the movies, though. In our lives. The way she attempts to ingratiate herself to her younger employees, using slang that she clearly heard on the news, is very familiar. We feel as though Sandra could be our friend’s mom, trying to be accepted, knowing that she never fully can be. When it comes to lecturing the staff, Dowd knows just what inflections to hit. Sandra has been at this a while; she knows that her staff doesn’t take her seriously and doesn’t particularly care about he job. So she can’t exactly act like she’s rallying the troops when she claps her hands and says, “Clean clean clean.”
Dowd plays Sandra as a woman deeply aware of who she is and how she comes across. She clings to whatever dignity she has, knowing that there isn’t much there. She is the perfect target for the officer. He allows her to act with authority she doesn’t have, while also assuring her that she’s doing things right. To see Dowd respond to these pandering compliments, allowing herself the briefest of smiles in an uncomfortable situation, is to watch some of the subtlest, truest acting I’ve ever seen. If this were the type of movie that Oscar voters would embrace, Dowd would be nominated for Best Actress. Unfortunately, this isn’t that kind of movie, so Ann Dowd can try to be content with having turned in a wonderful performance that anchors a remarkable film.
By the end of Compliance, the characters have gotten wise to what has happened and the accusations begin. People from outside the situation judge those that were in it and those that were a part of it judge each other. And throughout it all, Zobel and his camera stand back and watch silently as we see raw, vulnerable humanity on display. It is indeed an exhausting, harrowing experience. One that, I think, can help us understand ourselves and each other a little better. It is a film that hears that voice in the back of our head that says, “I could never do that,” and answers oh-so-quietly, “Yes. You could.”