When I first saw Craig Zobel’s Compliance at the Maryland Film Festival, I was faced with that urge that often tempts but rarely snares a critic; the desire to walk out. Zobel’s film, about the lengths to which some people can be coerced to defile or hurt others, did not particularly shock me or drive my eyes to the exit. Instead, it was the film’s own persuasive argument that kept whispering in my ear. To what extent does an audience comply with the treatment of poor Becky by continuing to watch it? Did I pass the test by staying, or was my inability to leave really predicated by a social structure I take for granted? Did I let internal authorities (‘critics never walk out!) trump my sense of what was right in the situation?
It’s an ultimate testament to the hypnotic and awful draw of Zobel’s picture that it kept me in my seat, and although I did not enjoy Compliance, it is a film worthy of discussion and thought. It has the potential to cause one to take personal inventory regarding voyeurism, with a fascinating exploration of the point where meek compliance becomes active complicity with evil. It’s a hard film to watch; we are not observing physical violence onscreen but an emotional and spiritual deconstruction, and it gets under the skin in a way a slasher film or a splatter flick never will. When it crosses a line here or there, it’s because that line was crossed in the extremely absurd and unbelievable news story it is based off of. Give Zobel credit too that Compliance questions whether a reliance upon the ‘truth’ is justification for an action’s existence, even if that action is a film. Still, all of this may not mean you want to see it yourself.
Authority demands our obedience; this is the simple and frightening conceit that Zobel explores within the microcosm of the work staff at an Ohio fried chicken joint. Ann Dowd gives a sublime and understated turn as Sandra, the over-the-hill and overweight sad-sack manager of ChikWich, a fast-food restaurant going through a particularly rough day. Overnight someone left the walk-in freezer open and much of the food has gone bad, causing Sandra to scurry and scrabble to still provide what’s needed. It’s an already tense environment—made more so by Sandra’s ill-timed attempts to showboat in front of younger co-workers Becky (Dreanna Walker) and Connie (Nikiya Mathis)—that is tipped over the edge when someone claiming to be a police officer calls the restaurant and identifies Becky as having stolen money from a customer’s purse.
From the moment the caller (a creepy and effective Pat Healy, channeling John C. McGinley) requests Sandra take Becky into the back-room and strip-search her, the film enters a pressure cooker of tension and sickening inaction that it does not leave until moments before its close. Once Sandra, puffed up and encouraged by the hypothetical law officer, starts complying, she doesn’t stop, giving in to each new and frankly insane request the man makes. Adding to the overall queasiness is the fact that Becky, now reduced to cowering in the back in nothing but an apron, remains passive and compliant herself, giving into the officer’s threats that she and her family will be going to jail if she doesn’t play along. Sandra, unsure at first, slips all-too-easily into her role as interrogator while retaining enough self-deluding sympathy for Becky it makes her blind to what’s really happening. Sandra keeps leaving Becky in the charge of her underlings and eventually her fiancé Van (Bill Camp), mostly at the behest of that persuasive voice on the phone. Compliance wisely leaves the final, deplorable act of the actual event off-screen and mercifully unmentioned. It does create such an atmosphere of discomfort in its last half hour that even severely jaded viewers may find themselves dusting off their conscience and averting their eyes to afford Becky the privacy and respect she is consistently denied onscreen.
Zobel has followed up his genial and entertaining debut, The Great World of Sound with a movie that is both ambitious and acutely aware of what it wants to be. He walks a fine line between simply recreating the events of the news story and providing a quirky, idiosyncratic veneer that subverts our expectations. The opening sets up a sitcom friendly atmosphere that invests us in the characters and prepares us for a working-class comedy. Soon, Zobel tears away that veneer and submerges us in what is ostensibly a horror movie about what happens when we give up our own free will upon demand. Dowd is surprisingly human and sympathetic as Sandy, and as the character’s decisions result in escalating trouble for Becky it is this remarkable performance that makes the beleagured manager more complex in our eyes. Walker fearlessly carries the movie, adding layers to Becky as she makes her own series of choices that are no less baffling than Sandy’s. Her innocence and horror are palpable, but that wouldn’t be enough here. She adds small shades of nuance to Becky’s responses that ground her character in a sad, believable verve. She assists Zobel’s goal of familiarizing the audience with an exploited party. It’s easier to imagine her being a sister, a daughter or a close friend and what she goes through is more grueling as a result. Healy is a honey-tongued monster who does much with a role that is no more than a disembodied voice for the first hour or so.
Ultimately, Compliance itself is not exploitative, although it borders on sensationalist at points. Zobel follows the pattern of Hitchcock in the way he lures in the audience, provokes them, and then rebuffs their curiosity. The difference is that he’s not nearly as confident or artistically inclined as Hitch was, and Compliance sticks so closely to its role as moral agitator that it never becomes good art or good entertainment. One of the issues is that the actions onscreen are never fully plausible, despite the fact much of the dialogue and action is pulled from documentation of the actual event. It’s taken me a few months to acknowledge its power, but this is not a film to be trifled with. Despite my regard for the skill and effort expended here, I’ll consider it a success if you’ve read this review and have come to the conclusion that this movie isn’t for you. If you do go, consider yourself warned. Compliance will hold you to the consequences of indulging in its harrowing morality play.