August 15, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Compliance

by Vadim Rizov


In April, ten Portland youths performed a quick hit-and-run clothing raid on a Nordstrom's, collaring six jackets in under two minutes. One employee's comment board response (recorded, unfortunately, by racist website, but of note despite the source) spoke volumes about minimum-wage morale. "I have to wonder why you think that we care?" wrote Nordstorm's employee Jacob Handleman. "Things like this make work more interesting and I hold no ill-will toward anyone in this group. Our security personnel spend more time concerned with employees than clientele."

Craig Zobel's second feature Compliance considers a particularly dire case of employees turning on each other in a quest for status. It's a scrupulously fact-based dramatization of the infamous "strip search prank call," the 2004 climax (an arrest followed shortly) to over 70 such incidents. A male impersonating a police officer called a small-town McDonald's and convinced the assistant manager a cashier had stolen money from a customer. What exactly was said to convince the manager to strip search the blameless employee, then leave her naked and shivering for three and a half hours (under the supervision of males directed to perform acts of sexual humiliation and assault) is not on public record.


Zobel's dialogue suggests some possible motivations. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has more responsibility than her largely teenaged crew, but presumably not much more compensation. Since there's no credible way to motivate them, she addresses them like underperforming elementary school kids ("Kevin, get off the counter"). When "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy, a Ghostface-ish voice offscreen eventually shown at home) calls in with a description (blond, female, about 19) that could find a match in almost any fast food joint, Sandra matches the amorphous prompt with Becky (Dreama Walker).

Daniels offer the illusion of choice: Becky can submit to a strip-search while his men search her house, or she can come downtown and presumably spend the night in jail. "Ma'am? Ma'am?" Daniels says with scrupulous faux-politeness when Sandra demurs. "I need you to do me a favor and calm down, OK?" He verbally rewards Sandra's zombie amenability with his strip-search instructions, praising her as "very professional." (In contrast, he asks if Kevin is "disobedient and unprofessional," as if the two were synonyms.)


Making his requests plausible isn't hard: cooperative Sandra understands that anything's justified when (other people's) money is involved. With legal authority added to her formerly figurehead position, Sandra feels free to be nasty to Becky, who mocked her earlier for using the term "sexting" in an ill-advised attempt at manager-underling bonding. She condescendingly explains the obvious ("We can't have employees stealing from a customer, you know?") and snaps "Why are you talking to me? Can't you see I'm on the phone?" when Becky asks, after a few hours have passed, if she can have her clothes back. Daniels is building up to getting some sexual kicks, but he equally enjoys bringing the petty tyrant worst out of Sandra.

Zobel's first feature Great World of Sound examined how businesses treat both workers and customers poorly, focusing on two debt-ridden salesman (Healy again and real-life preacher Kene Holliday) whose best job option was fleecing credulous aspiring musicians by forcing them to pay to have their unreleasable songs "professionally recorded" and brought to market. Compliance removes customers from the dynamic, leaving powerless employees to turn on each other, no upper management presence required.

COMPLIANCE director Craig ZobelSandra's the narrative focus, while Becky's mostly a martyr: a massive, Passion of Joan of Arc close-up focuses on her near-tears face against the blinding light through a mirror. But Sandra feels she was the real victim, telling a TV interviewer she felt she did "what anybody would do." Filmed largely in dispiriting widescreen close-ups by Adam Stone (DP on Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), there's one heartbreaking visual highlight when Sandra's ordered to take Becky's clothes out to her car for "safekeeping." Like a Gerry outtake, she marches to her grimy, dust-covered 2000 Subaru, leaves the clothes and throws out a dirty disposable cup sitting on the seat. She's trying to impress someone who isn't even visible, and the camera follows her every mournful trudge. At this moment, Sandra's the victim of a total theft of self-respect: how and why she becomes, however briefly, the oppressor is convincingly argued by Zobel's vital dissection of the near-lowest rung of the American service industry ladder.

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Posted by ahillis at August 15, 2012 10:36 AM