Over the course of a decade, more than 70 incidents were reported of a police officer calling various fast food restaurants and grocery stores, claiming that a female employee stole from a customer and ordering that she be strip-searched by management. It wasn’t until 2004 – when an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee was stripped, spanked and forced to perform oral sex on a manager’s fiancé – that authorities realized this was not the doing of an officer, but a perverted prank caller.
These events are the inspiration behind Craig Zobel’s breakout feature film “Compliance”, a disturbing look into the human psyche that has divided audiences ever since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter.
In “Compliance,” “Law and Order”-alum Ann Dowd portrays Sandra – a fast food chain manager dead set on running a tight ship, but not afraid to boast about her recent engagement from time to time. In the midst of a busy Friday rush, Sandra receives a call from a man referring to himself as Officer Daniels (played by a sinister Pat Healy) claiming that blonde, doe-eyed Becky (Dreama Walker) had stolen money from a customer’s purse earlier that day. With increasing hesitation, Sandra goes along with the caller’s demands and a chilling display of respectable people at their most inhumane gradually unfolds.
The biggest problem with this film is looking past just how dense these people can be, and if I had not known that this story was based on actual events, I probably would have loathed every minute of my viewing. As you see characters like Sandra, her fiancé Van (Bill Camp) and fellow employee Mari (Ashlie Atkinson) continually humiliate Becky without apology, I caught myself yelling at the screen on a number of occasions. How could one so blindly go through with such insane demands? (Would you actually believe a police officer that asked the nipple size of the accused, or insisted on spanking as a rational form of punishment?)
Levelheaded characters like Kevin (Philip Ettinger), who refuse to take part in the proceedings, really give the story the moral grounds that it calls for. After their flirty beginnings, one of the most powerful scenes of the film is when Kevin discovers Becky helpless and wearing nothing but an apron in the backroom – a far cry from the snappy, confident girl he had seen only shortly before.
While the film’s marketing emphasizes the villainous side of Sandra, Dowd’s layered interpretation of the character strongly conveys the discomfort and reluctance she feels as she’s thrust into this delicate situation. She’s a blue-collar woman just trying to do her job – unwilling to question authority in fear of losing her position. Camp also gives an outstanding performance in his short time onscreen, and when he utters, “I did something bad,” at the film’s climax, equal sensations of disgust and pity immediately surface.
Despite some problematic dialogue (namely in the case of Healy, who was creepy yet unintimidating), “Compliance” is a master class in filmmaking, stylistically. At the beginning of the film, we are shown a variety of extreme close-ups: sparkling faucets, stacked dishes, cleaning supplies neatly organized in the corner. By the film’s end, a very different scene is depicted: grimy sinks, a phallic soda straw, that wretched office phone upturned on its side. No longer are the employees tidy and gleaming in their golden uniforms, but appear disgruntled and are cast in heavy shadows.
The film reads very much like a stage play, where the majority of the action takes place in one room, but Zobel keeps us captivated by slowly revealing the backroom environment – at first, backing us into the corner office with Becky, before gradually exposing the towering shelves and cardboard boxes that have suddenly become her prison. Zobel wisely shows just the right amount of imagery to make us feel uncomfortable, but conceals enough to keep the film from feeling exploitative.
With reports of heated reactions following early screenings, “Compliance” will likely sell countless tickets on controversy alone, as movies like “Shame” and “Killer Joe” have in recent memory. It is probably more memorable for its disquieting subject matter than its power as a stand-alone film, but the combination of its compelling performances and technical finesse make for a thought-provoking hour and a half.