"Compliance" caused quite a stir at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (reportedly about thirty audience members walked out before it was over), and is destined to keep people talking as more and more prospective viewers discover it. Free of physical violence but unblinking in its depiction of a young woman who is allowed to be sexually invaded and degraded under the instruction of a mere voice on the phone claiming to be an authority figure, the picture dares to uncomfortably provoke while posing a very simple question: what would you do if placed in the same situation? Loosely basing his script on true accounts, writer-director Craig Zobel plants his camera lens in the faces of his brave actors, daring them to go further in their actions while pulling the strings like a rule-smashing puppet master. He does not delight in their misery, but also hesitates to offer them an empathetic shoulder. His characters aren't malicious peoplenearly everyone is a victim in one way or anotherbut at what point does doing what we, as human beings, know is right supersede adhering to the voice of the law?
Fast food restaurant Chickwich is preparing for a mighty busy Friday, and already store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has had to contend with the discovery that $1,400 worth of food has been ruined because the freezer door was left open overnight. An authoritative, inwardly insecure middle-aged woman who lectures her workers one minute on the importance of following code, then turns around and tries to join in on a conversation with her younger employees about their sex lives, Sandra takes it very seriously when she receives a phone call from a police officer claiming that a customer has accused 19-year-old staff member Becky (Dreama Walker) of stealing money from her purse. Abiding by his instructions, Sandra calls Becky into the back office. When she finds out what she's being accused of, she patently denies the charge. The voice on the phone tells Sandra to check Becky's pockets, then her purse. When nothing is found, he demands that a strip search take place. Sandra doesn't feel at all comfortable doing soshe calls assistant manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) in to be a second witnessand when evidence of Becky's crime is still not found, the sticky situation unravels further out of hand.
Auspicious director Craig Zobel creates an absorbing everyday atmosphere in the opening scenes of "Compliance," dropping his viewers into the goings-on of a generic-looking fast food restaurant and its workers. Instantly identifiable, it's the sort of place where peoplesave for maybe Sandrawork at on their way to bigger and better things. When the fateful call is ultimately received, suggesting that Becky has not only committed theft, but that surveillance has caught the crime on tape, Sandra takes the accusation seriously. She is surprised that Becky would do such a thing, but she takes what the officer says as absolute. As the games intensifyand make no mistake they are games, the real identity of the caller revealed early on to be a bored sad sack (Pat Healy) whiling away his time at homethe cinematography by Adam Stone (2011's "Take Shelter
") is at once intimate and mundane, an eavesdropping fly on the wall. The music score by Heather McIntosh sneaks in and out, bringing portent and urgency after long, quiet sections where only the thick air of discomfort can be felt and heard. In a narrative that isn't very complicated, that takes its time, that observes while forcing the viewer to cast his or her own opinions and criticisms on what is taking place, the film equally enthralls and upsets. Director Zobel is always in command.
So, too, are its actors, particularly Ann Dowd (2011's "The Art of Getting By
"), as Sandra, and Dreama Walker (2009's "Lifelines
"), as Becky. Other players drop in and out, and all of them are terrificBill Camp (2009's "Public Enemies
") sticks to mind as Sandra's conflicted boyfriend Van, who arrives at Chickwich with too many beers in him before being asked to do something he's incapable of making a clear and logical decision about. It is Dowd and Walker, however, who must, for long periods, put on a two-woman show. Dowd is captivating and sad-eyed, her Sandra a woman who pulls around her own control over her employees, but is careful to not overstep that boundary. When she catches herself doing just that, she reassures herself that she's only doing what the officer wants from her. When she asks him a question, after all, he always seems to have the answer. Underneath, Sandra isn't so sure. Dreama Walker has the more physically demanding role, portraying Becky as brave but humiliated, a good person trapped by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the caller seems to know a little too much about her and her brother could either be a lucky guess, or suggestive of a danger even closer and more sinister than this movie confronts. Either way, it makes for a chilling subtext.
There are plenty of times in "Compliance" when the instinct is that no intelligent-thinking person would allow things to get so out of hand. Indeed, it's the one area where the writing, perhaps, fails. Why does no one refuse the officer, or demand that he get down to the restaurant himself to conduct the questioning? If the officer is at another crime site, as he says, then how can he constantly be talking on the phone without getting distracted or interrupted? Sandra probably goes along with it because she knows her job is on thin ice already once the area director finds out about the freezer door incident. It is more difficult to reason the behavior of the rest of the workers and accomplices, even if, to be fair, at least a couple of them do suspect something fishy is going on. Do they act upon these suspicions? No. Not until what's been done cannot be undone. "Compliance" skirts the credibility line, occasionally coming off as a stretch and other times so eerily plausible it might as well be a documentary. It all boils down to the question we started with. What would you do in a similar circumstance? Let the conversations begin.