Real-life drama serves up some heavy moral questions
Directed by Craig Zobel
Cast: Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Pat Healy
What with the movie industry’s overwhelming reliance on blockbusters, sequels and remakes, independent film festival offerings don’t seem to generate as much attention as they did a decade ago. But Compliance, the scary and controversial drama from first-time writer-director Craig Zobel, stirred up quite a bit of noise at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The audience response included multiple walkouts and some contentious shouting matches during the film’s Q&A session. So what’s got audiences so worked up?
Well, for once, a movie’s pre-credit claim “inspired by true events” is factual. The film is based on a spate of cruel prank phone calls that became an epidemic six or seven years ago. In them, callers claiming to be some sort of authority figure would trick hotel managers into trashing guest rooms or restaurant managers into strip-searching employees. Compliance takes the latter scenario and runs with it to tense and uncomfortable places.
Dreama Walker (the big-eyed blonde from “Don’t Trust The B---- in Apt. 23”) stars as Becky, a 19-year-old counter clerk at a ChickWich franchise in suburban somewhere. One afternoon, the store’s harried but seemingly decent manger Sandra (longtime character actress Ann Dowd) gets a phone call from “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy, who performs most of his role in voice-over). Daniels claims to be investigating a theft. Allegedly, a customer at the ChickWich has accused Becky of stealing some money. The policeman needs Sandra’s help in locating the stolen cash. In short order, Becky is sequestered in the store’s office, and that’s where things start getting ugly.
The main question in a film like this is: Is it believable? With Compliance, the answer is: no and yes. At first, of course, it’s simply outlandish that anyone in this situation would go along with the caller’s demands. Why would the accused “criminal” consent to an entire day’s worth of mental and physical abuse? Why would the people around her agree to mete out this abuse simply because a person on the telephone asked them to? But the sad fact is that this incident did happen—exactly as depicted—at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky.
The acting by Dowd and Walker (who spends most of the movie naked and vulnerable) is impeccable. Zobel’s lean, tight script wisely plants tiny, character-motivational seeds along the way. In an early scene, for example, Becky casually gabs with a coworker about the three boys hungrily texting her. Sandra jumps in, bragging about her “fiancé,” who’s almost surely going to propose to her soon. It’s a miniscule moment, but it sets up the possibility that the frumpy, middle-aged manager is jealous of her pretty, young employee. This could serve as an excuse—however weak—for some of her later behavior.
Zobel’s direction shows a similarly loving eye for detail, capturing the banality of the setting—the dirty snow in the parking lot, the crumpled wrappers in the dining room. Most of the film is shot in intimate, lens-in-face close-ups, hightening the painfully claustrophobic nature of the story. Zobel is no piker here. You can argue his motivations and the film’s lasting impact all you want, but he’s a capable and cunning director.
In the final tally, Compliance is less a movie and more a conversation starter. Are people really this gullible? Could it really have happened like that? What would I have done in that situation? If you aren’t totally pissed off by the inherent stupidity of the human race in the first 15 minutes, you might actually start to percolate some interesting debate topics: the efficacy of brainwashing, the reality of Stockholm Syndrome, the lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the culpability of Nazi officers who were “just following orders.” That’s a lot of thinking to come out of a low-budget, one-set indie film. And for that, Compliance deserves some major credit.
By watching it, viewers may feel like mute witnesses to a horrible, slow-motion crime. You’ll want to do something: Get that girl out of there, hang up the phone, at least shout to the characters and point out what morons they’re being. To some, this will undoubtedly result in a frustrating moviegoing experience. But I would submit that it’s all part of Zobel’s plan. That’s exactly how we should feel—dirty, impotent, complicit. Hopefully, confronted with a similar situation in real life, we won’t simply go with the flow. For now, though, all we can do is watch. And maybe take a shower afterward.