Writer-director Craig Zobel’s Compliance is a well-acted, proficiently made dramatization of true-story events — namely, a crooked 2004 prank call that led to an instance of sexual abuse within the walls of a Kentucky McDonald’s — that’s hindered by an unwillingness to interpret or grapple with the implications of the real-life events that inspired it. Zobel is content to simply depict this horrific occurrence, essentially in real-time fashion, and while that inevitably results in a sporadically unnerving film, Compliance remains weighed down by its resolutely literal approach.
If you’re not too familiar with the origins of the film’s story, you’ll still be able to tell fairly soon that something ominous is afoot, as the film’s opening, in addition to introducing the title in super-sized white font, is punctuated by the loud, foreboding reverberations of Heather McIntosh’s string score. We’re then introduced to Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a ChickWich fast-food joint, as she learns that one of her location’s freezers was recently left open, causing $15,000 in food to go to spoiled waste.
This is soon the hot-topic of Sandra’s staff, which includes Connie (Nikiya Mathis), Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), Kevin (Philip Ettinger), and Becky (Dreama Walker), the perky cash-register girl. The topic of conversation changes, however, when Becky starts discussing the erotic text messages she’s been receiving from romantic admirers. But whereas most of her co-workers — many of whom are of a similar age — are able to approach the issue with a measure of comfort, the middle-aged Sandra makes things extremely awkward when she interjects herself into the dialogue to claim that she and her significant other, Van (Bill Camp), are rather experienced themselves in the “sexting” arena.
Sandra’s clumsy insecurity rapidly becomes the last thing on everyone’s mind, though, as an out-of-nowhere call from an authoritative man (Pat Healy) fetches Sandra’s head-honcho attention away from the elbow-to-elbow business her restaurant is doing. (It’s Friday, and boy do people like their French fries on Fridays.) Assuming the name “Officer Daniels,” the voice prompts Sandra to bring Becky into one of the back rooms. Becky stole money from a customer, Daniels claims, and he has both the personal eye-witness and video-surveillance footage to prove it. All he needs is for Sandra to search her employee and find the stolen cash. Oh, and she has to call him, “Sir.”
By this point in the movie, the psychological agenda of Compliance is understood almost entirely — Sandra appears to be a somewhat sensible person, and yet she’s content to subject herself to the forceful commands an anonymous caller. The situations get tenser and tenser, sure, as Sandra’s own Val is called in to watch over and examine Becky at one point, but the film’s basic idea never extends beyond presenting the admittedly haunting notion that the human tendency to obey orders can be as catastrophic as it can be productive.
Where the film consistently announces itself — and, albeit ever so slightly, achieves something that couldn’t be done in a segment on 60 Minutes — is in the performances, which are uniformly exceptional. Dowd’s ready-to-please Sandra is the anchor, because the actress convinces us that her character is an average human being — it’s easy to gasp in horror right now at the tragic impact her submission had on many lives, but I’m not sure she’s all that different from the woman who may be running your local Wendy’s.
Walker is equally on-point, in a potentially thankless role that has her doing three different things: crying, trembling with fear, and undressing. Healy, for his part, is cannily manipulative as the voice on the end of the line, at times even dancing with enjoyable, kinky farce. But because Zobel’s approach is so streamlined, he’s not allowed to push that aspect as much as we’d like.
Camp is the final player of significance, and I think it’s with his character that Zobel had the most intriguing opportunity to magnify and unravel the film’s narrative blueprint. As it stands now, it’s still an effective character, with the actor’s nice-guy humanity working interestingly at odds with the increasingly grotesque tasks he’s assigned to perform. But his exit is unsatisfying in very much the same way that the film’s own exit is unsatisfying, in that it settles for mere depiction, in the hopes that the viewer will do the dirty work of filling in the gaps on their way home from the theater. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like Zobel has done anything himself to get our digging started.
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