Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ann Dowd, Bill Camp
A superbly acted and psychologically complex drama based on true events, writer-director Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” examines what can be accomplished with one piece of information and the suggestion of power. Unfolding with a screw-tightening simplicity at once disarming and deeply unnerving, Zobel’s film tells a simple story but one with a tentacled, fragile connection to everything from e-phishing scams and modern identity fraud to more monstrous abuses and scandals of the sort that have impacted Penn State University and the Catholic Church.
“Compliance,” which bowed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, unfolds at a suburban Ohio ChickWich, a fast-food chain restaurant managed by the stressed-out Sandra (Ann Dowd). In the middle of a busy day shift, Sandra receives a phone call from a police officer (Pat Healy) telling her that an employee, Becky (Dreama Walker, of “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23”), has been fingered by a customer as having stolen money from her purse. Convinced she’s only doing what’s right, Sandra questions Becky, who denies any such theft. Sandra then follows (and tasks others with doing the same) a series of increasingly invasive step-by-step instructions from the voice on the other end of the line, who seeks her cooperation by way of explaining that he can’t yet spare officers to come to the scene.
“Compliance” is basically a coiled, cinematic mousetrap version of the famous Milgram Experiment, a series of social psychology tests in which obedience to authority figures was measured by having subjects perform acts otherwise out of step with what would be considered their personal consciences. Its roots lie in a case in Kentucky in April 2004, which later exposed more than 70 similar calls throughout the country over a period of nearly 10 years. What, then, to make of this warped but sizably-scaled attempt at manipulation and sexual abuse by proxy?
With the assistance of the ominous cello-and-glockenspiel rumble of Heather McIntosh’s score, Zobel (“Great World of Sound”) crafts a movie as taut and gripping as it is spare and streamlined. There are but a couple locations used here, which helps feed a sense of claustrophobia and queasy dread that mounts as the film unwinds, and circumstances become more dire for Becky. The characterizations are all crisp, and performances here are superb. Dowd channels the doubt and confusion of a person who strives to please, and avoid confrontation at all costs. Walker, meanwhile, charts a sympathetic course from bewilderment to sad resignation, most gut-punchingly registered in a telling line of explanation late in the movie: “I just knew what was going to happen.”
Detractors can harp on small details as somehow either indicative of filmmaking faults or “dumb,” unrealistic and/or overly impressionable characters, but “Compliance” digs down into the marrow in examining the degree to which people crave authority. Its story is wrapped up in sex, abuse, gender association and even generational power dynamics, it’s true, but the brash manipulation on which it focuses is present in everything from advertising to politics, where the “wrong-but-strong” management style of former president George W. Bush was viewed in many quarters as an asset. “Compliance” strips bare the fallacy of equivalent free will, and exposes the preference if not outright comfort many have for someone else making decisions and telling them what to do. It gets under one’s skin in a manner few films do, but sticks in one’s head the same way all great ones do.
Written by: Brent Simon