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An unsettling hoax

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Thursday, November 01, 2012
Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Dreama Walker in Compliance.

At first glance, it sounds like the thin plot of a particularly bad example of a straight-to-DVD exploitation flick: a young woman is held against her will at her workplace, stripped naked, and forced to endure—and perform—any number of degrading acts while her coworkers stand idly by, or worse, participate in her humiliation. It’s the kind of scenario so outrageously over the top that we usually pay for our gas and leave without giving those discs a second look.

The crazy thing, though—and herein lies the sickening punch of Craig Zobel’s new film Compliance—is that it happened. And not just once.

In Zobel’s film, fast-food clerk Becky (Dreama Walker) is working the Friday night shift when her manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) pulls her off the register and into a break room in back, all at the behest of a police officer—or someone claiming to be one—who has called into the restaurant and requested her help in an investigation. A customer, he says, has accused Becky of stealing from her, but the police are too busy to investigate at the moment, and don’t want to have to throw Becky in jail. Can Sandra help? “I’ll do everything, you know, that you need,” she says. What follows is a nightmare.

The story grew from a real-life incident that occurred in 2004 at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky., where a female employee was held against her will for over three hours, stripped and sexually assaulted by a manager and the manager’s fiancee. When it was discovered that the call had been a hoax, the resulting investigation uncovered dozens of other crimes that fit the pattern. A corrections officer was arrested for the crime but never convicted.

But Zobel’s film (which is finishing a one-week run at Amherst Cinema) is less concerned with the physical details of the offense—however awful they are—and more with our blind obedience to nameless authority. Why, after all, should Sandra take the word of a man on the phone? Why doesn’t she hang up, and call 911 to confirm what she has been told? It beggars belief, but it happened, and too many times to be a fluke. As a people, we have an innate and sometimes dangerous ability to let ourselves be swept up by the appearance of authority—it’s the old line about how to break into a building: just walk in and look like you belong. But it’s also about how we allow the presence of authority to relax our individual ethics—when you’re following orders, it’s all too easy to blame the next guy up the ladder.

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Also this week: Amherst continues its Jazz a la Mode Film Series at 7 p.m. Monday with a screening of The Girls In The Band. Introduced by local NEPR jazz radio host Tom Reney, Judy Chaikin’s documentary looks at the rarely told stories of female jazz instrumentalists from the 1930s up to the present day. While many outsiders look at the jazz world as welcoming of women, the truth is that it has often been a fiercely sexist arena, especially for instrumentalists.

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And finally this week, two classic tales of war come to the area. The first is All Quiet On The Western Front, screening in Shelburne Falls as part of Pothole Pictures’ fall lineup on Nov. 2 and 3. The 1930 film follows a group of idealistic young Germans as they enter World War I, only to be brought up short by the terrible realities of trench warfare. Eighty years later, it remains a penetrating look at war.

And on Nov. 7, Cinemark Hadley screens The Great Escape, a look at a World War II prison camp and the band of rogues trying to break out of it. Steve McQueen stars as the leader of the crew; their story is based on an actual escape attempt that proved to be one of the war’s most audacious.•

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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