Without spilling a single drop of blood, “Compliance” (2012) is the most excruciatingly horrific film released this year. Second place ain’t even close.
Most viewers will not wish to endure sitting through “Compliance” more than once. Yet director-writer Craig Zobel’s film, aided and abetted by an extraordinary ensemble cast, speaks to issues of responsibility that are as relevant today as they have been for most of human history.
Based on a true story, “Compliance” is a fictional account of three hellish hours in the back room of a Mt. Washington, Ky. McDonald’s that all began with a phone call. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” lurks in the background throughout.
Zobel changed the locations and names of those involved in the McDonald’s incident. Although no recordings of the actual phone calls exist, surveillance tapes and court transcripts from the litigation that followed provided ample source material.
“Compliance” takes place at a fictional restaurant called “Chick-Wich,” the kind of quick-serve fast-food factory one can find in every city and small town in the United States: shiny surfaces, logoed uniforms and cardboard hats, mechanized greetings and up-sale patter – “would you like fries with that?” One can almost smell the perpetually deep-frying, pre-cut frozen potatoes (apologies to In-N-Out).
See “Compliance” trailer HERE.
Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) urges the staff to be “on their toes” this particular Friday evening because the restaurant is short-handed, and rumor has it a secret shopper might show up at any time.
The staff meeting breaks and the crew members head to their stations in anticipation of the big rush. Soon enough, the restaurant is slammed with customers. Enter “Officer Daniels,” who places a perfectly timed call requesting to speak to the manager.
Sandra grabs the line, and she’s hooked in less than 30 seconds. Officer Daniels inquires about a young blond girl working at the restaurant. Sandra asks, “You mean Becky?” Daniels answers affirmatively. He claims to have in his possession corroborated eyewitness accounts that prove Becky (Dreama Walker in her first role) stole money from a customer’s purse.
Sandra does not even question the laughable logistics required for Becky to have performed the described theft, out in the open, no less. Over the next hour-plus of the film’s running time, Officer Daniels orders Sandra and others to follow a series of increasingly absurd, clearly illegal, and ultimately sadistic instructions.
“Compliance” evokes intense audience reactions
Walkouts and shouting matches reportedly erupted at the Sundance premiere of “Compliance” in January, and again in New York last week.
A recent San Francisco preview felt like a Times Square grind house screening of “Super Fly” (1972). People were yelling at the characters onscreen; at least a half-dozen walked out, including an elderly, obviously infuriated man and his wife who urged the audience to abandon the theater, not just because the characters were idiots, but because they were based on individuals “who will probably vote Republican in November!”
One could argue “Compliance” is an exploitation film – except for one astounding, irrefutably documented data point: Similar incidents were reported to have occurred at least 70 times in 30 states over the last few years. Some of the cases are still in litigation. In just about every case, a disturbed individual impersonating a police officer convinced apparently sober, often Christian American citizens to illegally detain, search and – to varying degrees – molest a literally innocent young girl.
Texas Republican Party urges ban of “critical thinking skills”
Texas Republican Party platform framers may want to rewrite their position on critical thinking after watching “Compliance.”
The 2012 platform reads, in part:
We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
Texas Republican Party Communications Director Chris Elam claims the “critical thinking skills” language should have been edited out of the document. He goes on to explain that because the platform was approved by the convention, “it cannot be corrected until the next state convention in 2014.”
Sounds like the Texans could use a communication equipment upgrade – from chiseled-in-stone to at least a Windows 95 word processor.
You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.” Octave (Jean Renoir) in “Rules of the Game” (1939)
Facts about the original McDonald’s case
- The jury awarded Louise Ogborn (“Becky” performed by Dreama Walker), the plaintiff and victim in the original case, $6.1 million.
- Donna Summers, the store’s assistant manager (“Sandra” portrayed by Ann Dowd), pled guilty to a charge of unlawful imprisonment and was placed on probation.
- Walter Nix Jr., the manager’s boyfriend (Van, portrayed by Bill Camp in the film), was sentenced to five years in prison for sexual abuse.
- Police arrested former Florida correctional officer and father-of-five David R. Stewart based on circumstantial phone-card evidence. Police found phone cards verifying calls to other fast food restaurants the day similar crimes were committed, but none to the Ky. McDonald’s outlet. In Oct. 2006, a jury deliberated for one hour and 40 minutes before finding him not guilty on all charges. No similar calls have been reported since.
- In a 2008 episode of Law & Order: SVU, Robin Williams played Detective Milgram, a sly reference to Dr. Stanley Milgram, who conducted a controversial experiment testing the limits of obedience to authority.
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