“Compliance is an intense, claustrophobic thriller with a strong moral core. The film puts two questions in front of its audience, “Would you do that under those circumstances?” and, “If you say “no” then just how far would you go?”


Last review of series 1

If you are following these reviews in sequence, this is just to let you know ‘Compliance’ is the last official review of series 1.

CRACKS will be taking a long break but will return with another batch of all new reviews in June 2016.

Review (text version)

Here’s a film that was suggested by a CRACKS follower, Roger, who sent an email a while back “…I thought of a film that slipped through the cracks… COMPLIANCE was a great little movie – one of those moral dilemmas about what would you do if…”  and I’m gonna hold back on the “if” details for a moment.

As I said in response to Roger’s email, “…it was reacting to Compliance (and a few others I saw around the same time) that put the bee in my bonnet about these overlooked films…”

As Roger identified, Compliance is both a great little movie and ticks all the boxes for a “Between The Cracks” review – an intense and thought provoking 90 minute indi movie with great performances that grossed about $1.95 at the box office and was seen by only 11 people outside of film festival screenings.

Compliance is an intense, claustrophobic thriller with a strong moral core. The film puts two questions in front of its audience, “Would you do that under those circumstances?” and, “If you say “no” then just how far would you go?

Watching the film I’m guessing different people will have quite different escape points where they go, “Na, that’s it, at that point I’d stop doing that… or maybe at that point…” And in finding your own jump ship moment – well, therein lies the hypnotic bewitching of this film.

The events involve Becky, played by Dreama Walker, a 19 year old employee of a busy fast food restaurant who’s been accused of theft.  The duty manager, Sandra, played by Ann Dowd, takes a phone call from a police officer who tells her he’s detained on other business but can Sandra hold Becky, in a secure room at the back of the restaurant, until he can arrive.  Sandra complies, well she’s assisting the Police and it’s not such an unrealistic request, right?

What happens beyond that point is a fascinating study in the power of suggestion and the willingness of people to slavishly follow instructions from authority figures, in this case leaving their own sense of morality and judgement completely outside the situation.

Officer Daniels, the faceless voice on the phone escalates the request, asking Sandra to take Becky’s clothing and strip search the girl because she might be hiding things on her body.

Now, is this about the point an alarm bell might go off in your head?  Why is a police officer asking a fast food restaurant duty manager, totally unqualified or untrained, to perform a strip search on an accused petty thief?  But the instructions of Officer Daniels are compelling.  Any questions Sandra raises he subdues with a carefully orchestrated combination of demands and flattery, we start to see why Sandra behaves as she does.

It’s an intense characaterisation and performance in which Ann Dowd excels, especially when considering her co star in half the film is a telephone.

Prior to this I’d not seen her in a lead role, but as a result of her performance here, she was immediately added to my list of ten best working actresses out there. I’ll certainly be looking out for her in the future.

Large chunks of the action happens pretty much in real time and maintaining the claustrophobic intensity, in performance, during these long scenes, is no small task.

By avoiding too much time compression and retaining every word and pause that might exist in a real situation, the film feels less like a drama and more like a documentation of the events, as if they are playing out in real time and a couple of cameras are conveniently capturing it for us to voyeuristically observe.

This sense of voyeurism is particularly pronounced in the confines of the back office where Becky is held captive, forced to strip and then perform certain acts…. not giving any more away here…

These scenes could have been pushed down the path of many an exploitive horror movie – where the distress and undress of a young woman is turned into titillation for half the audience.  Not here.  Not a hint of it.

Any of that is squashed before it can happen and what makes Becky’s dilemma all the more horrific is we realise the abuse towards her is being administered by a compliant but totally manipulated intermediary – there are really two victims in the scene, not one. This is where Writer / Director Craig Zobel really plays with our heads and our emotions.

Of course questions went through my mind, “Sandra would surely realise she didn’t have the authority to do what the police officer was asking?” and “Well, even beyond authority what about her own moral sense of right and wrong and responsibility towards the care of the other employee?”

But early in the film Zobel neatly sets up Sandra’s head space – her deference to authority, an abnormally busy and frustrating working day AND what she thinks of Becky, well before the accusation of the theft.  We as the audience start to comply with the reasons we’re given by the director just as Sandra complies with the reasons given by officer Daniels.  Spooky.

It’s a case where the Milgram experiment form the early 1960s has surfaced, outside the confinement of a laboratory, in a real world setting.  In the Milgram experiment regular people were convinced to administer electric shocks to other people if they answered questions incorrectly.  The  people in white coast, the authority figures, instructed them to continue doing so even though they could see and hear the pain they were inflicting but complied with the instructions.  The zappers were able to divorce themselves from the zapees and any personal, moral responsibility because they were “following orders” and afterwards I do wonder if they all went back to their day jobs in fast food restaurants.

Now when I first saw Compliance I thought, here we go, “based on true events”… you know routine, two scoops of “true events” with a big fat dollop of “dramatic license” on top… but then I saw a television piece from the USA, on the Tubes Of You,  I was shocked.

This film is indeed largely based on real events that happened at a McDonalds restaurant in Mt Washington, Kentucky in 2004.  You can easily find online, a lot of the surveillance camera material from that real event and when you see it you realise that the “dramatic license” here turns out to be a rather minimal side order.

What about the unseen “Officer Daniels”, well someone pulled similar pranks over a ten year period involving more than 70 businesses, mainly fast food joints, across 30 states of the USA and is often referred to as the “strip search phone call scam’.

It would appear that someone was on a vendetta against fast food joints… maybe? And did that someone think the staff of such places came with an inherent low ability to question authority but with high levels of servitude and gullibility?  Any which way, the number of pranks and the number of “victims” suggests a lot of people are willing to leave their own sense of morality and responsibility at the door when someone in perceived authority says “jump”.

As it turns out a suspect was arrested after the Mt Washington event but never convicted.  Interestingly after that the pranks ceased.

So, if you were Sandra or Becky, or any of the other people who ended up being involved, at what point would you have said, stop… enough… end?


Production company (review):

Newtown Flicks

Producer (review):

Greg Punch

Editor (review):
Greg Punch

Reference Blu-ray copy of film used for this review:

Distributed by Magnolia Home Entertainment 10517

Film “Compliance” production:

Dogfish Pictures
Magnolia Pictures
© 2011 Bad Cop Bad Cop  Film Productions

running time: 90minutes

release year: 2012

writer / director: 
Craig Zobel

select cast:
Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ashlie Atkinson, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger

Select images:

Freeze frames / video clips / audio clips are taken directly from the Blu Ray copy of the film and / or officially released trailer / promotional video of the film
(see “Copyright” section below)

Milgram experiment images

Mesa Community College PIRC Lab

Strip search phone scam (articles):

Poster of Compliance
(see “Copyright” section below)


Kevin Mcarthy
“Gustav Sting”
“Spring Thaw”
“Spacial Harvest”
“Danse Macabre – Big Hit 1”
Licensed under Creative Commons:
By Attribution 3.0

Select stock images / video / sound effects:

Autocue services:

Suzycue Australia

Further information:
Interview with the Craig Zobel about the film:

Interview: Compliance Writer-Director Craig Zobel

Interview: Craig Zobel on Opening Up a Conversation With “Compliance”

The “further information” links are correct at the time of publication. Newtown Flicks can not be responsible for dead links or content moved or deleted from other sites.

Copyright and Fair Use:
The comments are those of the individual reviewer unless otherwise stated.  Each review (spoken and written) is the property of the individual author of that review.

All rights to the film under review, including related promotional elements (e.g. video clips, freeze frames, production stills, posters, box cover art, etc) or materials relating to the documentation of a film’s production (e.g. “on set” or “behind the scenes” photographs or interview comments from cast/crew), remains the exclusive property of the originators / legitimate owners of those elements.

These elements are reproduced with the intention of “fair use” for the express purpose of review / critique of the film.

Newtown Flicks claims no ownership of this pre existing material and is diligent in ensuring the use is restricted to the relevant video review and related web site known as BETWEEN THE CRACKS.

General site content and original video material © 2015 Newtown Flicks.

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