January 26, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Sundance has a thriving Park City At Midnight program that features plenty of high-octane horror movies, but the most unnerving and disturbing film of this year’s festival may have been Craig Zobel’s COMPLIANCE, a low-key drama based (apparently rather closely) on a true story without any hacked-off limbs or hint of the supernatural.

In a suburban fast-food store on a Friday afternoon, a call comes in to the manager Sandra (Ann Dowd).  The caller identifies himself as a local cop, and explains that there’s been a report that young Becky (Dreama Walker), who works the counter, has pilfered some money from a customer’s handbag.  The officer tells Sandra to pull Becky aside and search her belongings for the money.  Then, step by step, as he explains that Becky is actually part of a larger criminal conspiracy, his instructions to Sandra become steadily more demanding and assaultive on Becky.  By the end of the night, all legal and humane boundaries have been crossed, and things have taken place in the back of that restaurant that can never be undone.
Zobel’s superbly worked-out script explores what ordinary people will do if instructed by (in this case literally) a voice of authority, every shred of reason and morality dominated by the primal urge to obey.  It isn’t just Sandra who caves in to the voice on the phone, or Sandra’s fiance Evan (Bill Camp)–ultimately responsible for the most heinous acts–even Becky herself, who knows that she isn’t guilty of anything, assents to what she’s told to do.  Watching each person gradually surrender his or her individual will, it’s increasingly difficult to distance oneself from them.
The acting is remarkable.  With the exception of the man on the other end of the line (performed by Pat Healy), there are no flat-out villains here.  It’s not that the people fail to question what they’re being told to do, or that they don’t realize these things are wrong, but a mixture of expediency and fundamental weakness keeps them from acting on their own morality.  Dowd, Walker and Camp take us through their hesitations and initial resistance to a terrible place where their actions, however disgraceful, feel comprehensible.
On its all small terms, Compliance is beautifully made, with letter-perfect production design, riveting pace and handsome photography.  It’s not a picture for the faint of heart (walk-outs and furious Q&As marked some of its festival screenings), but at a Sundance largely notable for humor and mainstream entertainment value, Compliance is a genuinely challenging piece of work.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."