From the first few moments of Compliance, actually apparent even from the trailer, it’s clear that Ann Dowd delivers what will likely be one of the best female performances of the year. What made me want to watch the film — which, frankly, is a hard sit — was one look in Dowd’s eyes in the trailer, a flicker in her eyes that reveals a mysterious motive — what is she doing and why? Is it really just about compliance? Is it really just about taking orders or is there something more disturbing going on?
Compliance is a film that has prompted walk-outs, so say insider reports, and this is probably because it takes you a while to buy the concept. he adage that real life is stranger than fiction was never more true than it is here, and rattled viewers may lose patience for the baffling behavior onscreen unless they’re aware this sick travesty really happened. But Compliance, under the devilish control of writer-director Craig Zobel, takes a little while to sink its teeth in. Once it does you can’t look away. And you find yourself drawn in, you may begin to question your own motives. Are you waiting around to see something sexual happen? Are you caught up in the suspense of it? Are you horrified by what’s happening? What would you have done?
Compliance is a fascinating look at human nature. We are raised to respect authority and obey our elders. Girls especially learn how to be “good” very early on. Some of us rebel. Some of us question authority. Some of us would rather go to jail than comply. But most of us? Most of us are, it has been proven time and time again, do what we’re told, even if it means hurting another person or being party to something horrific. How do you think the Nazis got the Germans to go along with the evil atrocities they were committing?
[SPOILERS. Although Compliance is a true story, the subject of numerous news reports, the facts are not widely known. Since it’s impossible to discuss the thrust of the film with describing how events unfold, the next few paragraphs necessarily contain spoilers. The impact of the movie relies on the horrible escalation, so be advised you may want to discover them in the theater.]
The true story of Compliance ended in a $6 million settlement for the victim by the McDonald’s corporation*. A pittance, really, for what happened to her in the back room. It was all captured on a security video. The fear of bad publicity is likely what prevented McDonald’s and other fast food companies from reporting the prank call strip searches. The movie doesn’t use McDonald’s as its setting but it mostly adheres faithfully to the true story regarding “Becky” aka Louise Ogborn, played in the film by Dreama Walker, and “Sandra” aka Donna Summers (Down).
Summers’ reprehensible boyfriend ended up in jail, too, for going along all too willingly with the caller’s instructions to spank “Becky” and then receive a blowjob from her. The young girl, 18 in the real incident, 19 in the film, was too scared by that point to stop him. The boyfriend was probably turned on by the whole thing, but also being compliant to the caller’s instructions, no matter how outlandish they sounded.
[End of Spoilers. Safe to go back in the water.]
A smart actor knows the difference between playing a character with one dimension and dipping and diving through the more shadowy layers. Dowd’s performance is part of what keeps you watching because you can’t quite figure out where she’s coming from. Her motives, her boyfriend’s motives, are called into question and the film does not shy away from this. It does not absolve the real Sandra from blame.
The film starts with Sandra trying to talk to Becky about boys. Becky is the “pretty one” in the fast food joint and brags about the men who send her naked photos. She belittles Sandra when her boss tries to join in with clumsy raunch of her own. The moment that is most fascinating in Dowd’s work is after she leaves the conversation and listens in on Becky mocking her behind her back.
That sets the wheels in motion. It isn’t that she’s punishing Becky for being a typical mean girl. But there might be a left over resentment from a woman who was not only never a Becky in her life, but now too old to be acknowledged by Becky as anything other than a supervisor or a mother figure. The film’s throughline is Sandra’s insecurity.
Easy to judge these characters as unbelievably timid and weak-kneed, lose patience with their bewildering lack of willpower — until you recall that these were real people whose moral fiber faltered, or unless you’ve ever felt your own personal fortitude waver in the face of a threatening experience. Once I was home alone in my apartment. A guy called on the phone and said “I’m right across the street. Don’t hang up. Don’t call the police. If you do, I’ll come over there and kill you.” I was genuinely scared and I did what he told me to do — which basically amounted to telling him what I was wearing. After he hung up I regained my nerve and called the cops. Turns out he was calling me from prison. But we can never really know what we will do or won’t do until we’re placed in a menacing situation, overcome by sudden confusion and genuine fear.
Dowd gives an astonishingly layered, subtle performance, one of the best of the year so far. She enters the Oscar race against all odds. We who cover it know that hot, young and sexy rules the day. But real actors will hopefully be able to recognize her singular work. The SAG and the Globes might give Oscar a chance to abandon their usual inclinations.
Sidenote: My only criticism of the film is the ad for it, which looks like an ad for a torture porn movie.
Stinger: The initial $6 million judgement awarded to 18-year-old Louis Ogborn was ultimately knocked down to $1.1 million. First, the blame assigned was split 50-50 between McDonalds and the hoax caller, 37-year-old David Stewart. MsDonalds appealed the verdict, pleading a defense that the worst transgressions were not perpetrated by McDonalds employees. Ultimately the punitive damages were dropped altogether, and as Ogborn watched her due restitution evaporate she agreed to a settlement of just over a million dollars. McDonald’s did pay the $2.4 mil in legal fees for the plaintiffs, Ogborn and McDonalds manager Summers. If you think its odd that Summers herself managed to claim she was a victim instead of finding herself liable as an abuser, save your outrage for David Stewart. He skated free, exonerated of all charges due to lack of direct evidence. It seems the spineless compliance extended to the court case jurors as well.