90 min., rated R.
"Compliance" caused such stirring, controversial, and divisive reactions at Sundance and SXSW—some heckled and others just walked out—that it should prime viewers to rush out and see it for themselves. Lest one assume the film is just another shock exercise with an "inspired by true events" disclaimer being a cheap marketing ploy, writer-director Craig Zobel (2007's "Great World of Sound") proves truth really is stranger than fiction. Though it is not a brutally bloody horror film, "Compliance" is disturbing in how it examines the stickiness of human nature based around a cruel hoax. It's also disturbing because this ripped-from-the-headlines story could happen and did happen. True story: over 70 similar incidents, like the one that transpires here, were reported in 30 U.S. States. It wasn't until a 2004 incident in Mount Washington, Kentucky, at a McDonald's happened and led to the arrest and charging of the hoaxer. Like it or hate it, "Compliance" is a shrewdly troubling provocation that makes its audience the witnesses to a crime, and boy is it going to be a conversation starter.
Ohio fast food restaurant Chickwich is preparing for a very busy Friday night, and middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is already stressed that a freezer door was left open overnight. With the eatery understaffed and low on bacon and pickles, the show must go on, as Sandra remains authoritative but eager-to-please with her younger employees. Then Sandra receives a call from a man identifying himself as "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy). He claims that a customer has accused a blonde, 19-year-old counter girl of stealing money from her purse. (The voice on the phone insists that he has "the victim" with him and that his surveillance unit has caught the crime on tape.) The description of the perpetrator points to Becky (Dreama Walker), who pleads that she's innocent, but Sandra just wants to do her job and follow the supposed cop's orders. First, she is told to search Becky's pockets and confiscate her phone, and then she can either take Becky to jail or strip search her right there in her office before the cops arrive. Sandra and her shift superviser (Ashlie Atkinson) ungergo the strip search, but as her employees get into the weeds, Sandra doesn't think twice but abide by the officer's instructions and later calls in some of her male employees to help with the investigation. The vulnerable Becky has no other choice but to comply.
Most of "Compliance" feels like eavesdropping. Opening with mundane snapshots of the restaurant parking lot to the greasy fryers, writer-director Zobel effectively sets the tone, as well as establishes the milieu of blue-collar Middle America and the fast food industry. What begins as an accurate day-in-the-life of McDonald's-like employees makes its about-turn when Sandra gets the call, and the situation escalates from there. As the circumstances build, Zobel keeps it all so eerily plausible that it exists as a very well-acted reenactment of the truly unfortunate events and an actual film with something to say. Adam Stone, bringing a documentary-like immediacy and tense claustrophobia to his cinematography, and Heather McIntosh, whose string score is simply foreboding, deserve kudos.
All around, the performances are terrifically brave and persuasive. Ann Dowd leads the way in a truly riveting, shaded, and empathetic performance, as the pivotal marionette. Sandra is not treated so much as a fool but as an insecure woman who's just doing what seems right at the time. As Becky, Walker (TV's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23") is given the most physical challenges, appearing topless and naked underneath an apron, while emotionally expressing vulnerability and fear. Although Walker's Becky is shot in various states of undress and/or doing simulated sexual acts, the film never topples over into sick exploitation, but goes just far enough. Bill Camp, too, conveys the trauma in his face as Sandra's boozy fiancee Evan who's "forced" to do some degrading things.
Writing and directing his own what would you do? psychology test, Zobel soon makes his purpose apparent. It would be easy for one to slap his or her forehead and scream "Oh, come on!" at the characters' actions, but the filmmaker provokes questions. Why are people so willing to comply with authority? Are we brainwashed? In telling this matter-of-fact story, Zobel remains objective, and that's a wise approach. He also finds no need to pull a sleight of hand on us, but gradually shows the caller as a bored sicko making a sandwich at home and sitting at his desk. Otherwise, at Chickwich, there are no bad people, just people that become manipulated and are more complicit that they may think. Some of Sandra's workers even question the ethics of Daniels' commands and the overall situation, as any normal, clear-minded person would. However, at the hand of a supposed authoritative figure, everyone is a victim in one way or another with their backs against the wall. In the last sequence, when Sandra is asked if she feels responsible for the situation, she answers, "I was doing what I thought was the right thing."
Yes, the film frustratingly stretches credibility and character gullibility at times, but then again, does it? Deliberately but surely, "Compliance" is a queasy, uncomfortable sit, and all the better for it. How many films have the power to challenge you and stick in your mind? If a film is this powerful in provoking discomfort, wouldn't that make it effective? You decide.
Grade: B +