by Warren Curry
In the same tonal universe as, say, Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men,” Craig Zobel’s (”Great World of Sound”) second feature, “Compliance,” is a skillfully crafted, button-pushing movie. Based on a real incident — many of them, actually — “Compliance” is a harrowing examination of human psychology cracking under the influence/pressure of “authority.” This film is strategically designed to evoke a strong reaction from viewers, a goal it should have little trouble achieving.
Set at a fast food restaurant in suburban Ohio, the film begins with Sandra (Ann Dowd), the establishment’s manager, giving her team a brief pep talk/lecture, ordering them to be at their best because an undercover quality control inspector from the franchise may be paying them a visit this evening. A few minutes later, Sandra tries to have a friendly, personal conversation with her assistant manager, Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), and a teenaged register worker named Becky (Dreama Walker), but it’s an awkward attempt that makes her the object of derision. It’s clear Sandra is somewhat uncomfortable making social small talk, and comes across as someone just trying (and failing) to “fit in.”
What’s already shaping up to be a stressful evening for Sandra takes an unexpected turn when she receives a call from an Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who informs the woman that one of her employees has been accused of stealing money from a customer. He gives Sandra a description of the culprit who happens to match Becky. The officer tells Sandra that a group of officers are on their way to the restaurant, but in order to prevent Becky from being taken to the police station, he asks Sandra to assist in the investigation. He instructs Sandra to detain and search Becky, orders the woman reluctantly carries out, as the procedure becomes more invasive.
Every time Sandra questions the officer’s directions, Daniels convinces her of their necessity, and usually offers encouraging words of praise, thanking the woman for her professional handling of the situation. There are several times when Becky, who adamantly insists she’s innocent, speaks to the officer directly, but she always ultimately gives in to his wishes.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, this film should evoke a passionate viewer response, however, passionate responses often aren’t the most well balanced ones. My very humble suggestion is to thoroughly consider this film from many angles before rushing to judgment. Having the luxury of observation, of course, will generally lead viewers to different conclusions than they would reach if actually experiencing the situation depicted in the movie.
Not only does Zobel get great, convincing performances from every one of his cast members, regardless of the size of the role, he uses the geography of the primary location in a very effective way. Although Becky spends most of the film in a supply room in the back of the restaurant, it feels as if she may as well be locked away in a Third World prison. On paper, it seems like it should be so easy for the young woman to walk out when the interrogation crosses far past the line of simply uncomfortable, but the way Zobel manipulates the location, it feels almost impossible for her to do so.
This isn’t a film about victimization, because all involved, including Becky, are partly to blame for the predicament getting so out of hand. Other real life incidents such as the Milgram experiment and, to a lesser degree, the Stanford prison experiment come to mind when watching this movie, and on a much larger scale, parallels can be drawn to Nazi Germany. At what point can we, as rational human beings, no longer use “just following orders” as a defense? And at what point do we have a moral obligation to engage in civil disobedience? The film, somewhat confrontationally, asks these questions.
From what I understand, some film festival-goers have questioned the filmmaker’s motives, accusing him of misogyny, but I feel the humiliating treatment Becky is subjected to is handled in a tactful way. “Compliance” is largely unsettling viewing, but I don’t feel as if it’s exploiting its subject matter, although that’s certainly open to debate, which I believe is the film’s intention.
If you can, see this movie with a group of people…and then let the post-screening argument begin.
Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp
Rated R, 90 minutes
(Magnolia Pictures. Opens in New York City on August 17, 2012. Open in limited release on August 24, 2012)