Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 23rd
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Sorry, Wrong Number

film featPhone-prank cautionary tale ‘Compliance’ loses touch with reality 

Is it a tough, but important and timely drama on the “only following orders” mentality, or a gratuitous wallow in abasement and abuse? Audiences at Sundance this year were split over Compliance, the sophomore feature from Craig Zobel; half of them walked out early, the rest stayed to the end and cheered. But the truth of this film’s effectiveness lies somewhere in between these extremes—just as the facts of the case histories on which the story is supposedly based (“INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” scream the opening credits) no doubt lie somewhat to windward of the way they are presented onscreen.

Compliance tells the harrowing story of what happens when a prank caller pretending to be a cop convinces a fast-food restaurant manager and her employees to brutally punish an innocent young co-worker he claims stole from a customer. Incredibly, we’re told at the end that not one, but 70 similar real-life incidents have occurred in 30 states.

Zobel’s intentions are clearly honorable; he wants to make a cautionary tale warning us against innate, lock-step obedience to the illusion of authority. But to do this, his storytelling would have to be so persuasive that any average person watching could imagine himself or herself suckered into the situation in the same way. And it’s in these details—let’s call it the illusion of reality—that the film falls apart.

Fast-food chicken joint manager Sandra (an effective Ann Dowd) lacks the common touch with her much younger employees and tries to toe the corporate line. On a busy Friday afternoon, she gets a phone call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) saying a customer has claimed that pretty, teenage counter girl, Becky (Dreama Walker) stole money from her purse.

Sandra is asked to confine Becky to her office, search her purse and pockets, and, eventually, confiscate the girl’s clothes. Despite the insistence of Becky and her co-workers that the theft never took place, Sandra feels it’s her responsibility to “do what’s right” until the cops come, from strip-searching the girl to leaving her naked in the office for hours, covered only by an apron, to be “watched” by others taking instructions from the anonymous voice on the phone, including Sandra’s wary blue-collar boyfriend (Bill Camp), who’s had a few beers with his buddies.

To Zobel’s credit, he’s never prurient, shying away from showing too many graphic details as the abuse escalates, only suggesting their extent. And he’s careful to lay out the psychological maneuvering involved. As a middle-aged, single woman in a management position, Sandra needs to prove she’s a reliable team player, while the silky caller mixes chatty persuasion techniques (he calls everyone by their first name) with veiled threats and coercion that keep the others off-balance. When he first tells Sandra vaguely that the alleged suspect is “young, blonde ...” she immediately supplies the name “Becky.” Later, Sandra claims “he described her perfectly!”

But chances are that not one of the 70 incidents cited dragged on for hours, as this one does, or involved so many people. Five people parade in and out of the office in the course of the day (it appears to be morning when they open the joint, late night when the incident ends; doesn’t this place have day and night shift crews?), some of them not even employees, and only two offer any kind of protest. As no official police with a badge or a warrant ever show up, and the caller’s commands become more sexual, you’d think somebody involved would have at least heard of the concept of an obscene phone call.
film comp
The more Zobel tries to make the story dramatic, to stretch it out to feature length, the less credible it becomes. From the very first scene, when a freezer door accidentally left ajar is said to have spoiled a supply of bacon (which is cured and unlikely to rot overnight) and pickles (which are never stored in a freezer anyway; they’re pickled), to the hours Becky spends naked in that apron, the movie loses its tenuous grounding in reality. It devolves into a piece of fiction—and a not very convincing one at that.


★1/2 (out of four)

Watch film trailer >>>

With Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, and Pat Healy.
Written and directed by Craig Zobel.
A Magnolia release. Rated R. 90 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Best of Santa Cruz County 2014

The 2014 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll Come on in, and have a look around. There’s a lot to see—hundreds of winners selected by thousands of GT readers across Santa Cruz County. So if some of this looks familiar, it’s probably because you helped make it happen. But there are always new things to discover, too—you could go to a different winner or runner-up every day in the Food and Drink category alone, and you’d be booked just about until next year’s Best of Santa Cruz County issue comes out.


Something Essential Disappears

Lunar and solar eclipses follow one another. Lunar eclipses occur at full moons, and solar eclipses at new moons. Two weeks ago at the full moon we had the blood red moon—a total lunar eclipse (the next one is Oct. 8). On Monday night, April 28 (new moon), as the Sun, Moon and Earth align, a solar eclipse (Sun obscured) occurs. Eclipses signify something irrevocably is changed in our world. The Sun is our essential life force. Monday’s new moon, 9 degrees Taurus, is also an annular solar eclipse when the Moon moves centrally in front of the Sun, yet does not cover the Sun completely. The Sun's outer edges, still visible, form a “ring of fire” around the Moon.


Sugar: The New Tobacco?

Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California. SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.


Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

Latest Comments


Palate-Stretching 101

A wine education with Soif’s experts As a veteran of many weekend wine “seminars” at Soif, I have to confess that I’ve never known less (going in) and learned more (coming out) than I did last week at the Spanish Wine Tasting with ace rep Brian Greenwood. These are classy, casual events and it’s hard to imagine having this much flavor fun anywhere for $20.


Martin Ranch Winery

Sauvignon Blanc 2011 One of my favorite wines is Sauvignon Blanc, and this one made by Martin Ranch is particularly lovely. Bright, crisp and refreshing, it’s perfect to pair with fish and shellfish—and good for picnics as it has an easy screw-cap bottle. There’s nothing worse than setting down your blanket, pulling out your sandwiches—and then realizing you don’t have a corkscrew.


Foodie File: Red Apple Cafe

Breakfast takes center stage at Gracia Krakauer's Red Apple Cafe Before they moved to Aptos, Gracia and her husband Dan Krakauer would visit friends in Santa Cruz County and eat at the Red Apple Café all the time. Then they moved up here from Santa Monica five years ago, and bought the Aptos location (there’s a separate one in Watsonville) from the family who owned it for two decades.


How would you feel about a tech industry boom in Santa Cruz?

I feel like it would ruin the small old-town feeling of Santa Cruz. It wouldn’t be the same Surf City kind of vacation town that it is. Antoinette BennettSanta Cruz | Construction Management