Reviewed at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival
Craig Zobel’s Compliance opens with the words “inspired by true events” plastered across the screen in giant letters, and for good reason: the story that follows is all but impossible to believe. But it happened—I looked it up when I got home (and you will too). The names have been changed, and the details; in real life, it occurred at a McDonald’s (this film is set at a location of the fictional franchise “ChicWich”) in Mount Washington, Kentucky. But the events, even those hardest to swallow, are basically as they happened in April of 2004. There is no Hollywood exaggeration here.
Zobel’s trim but lived-in script introduces us to the Friday evening crew, particularly manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) and cashier Becky (Dreama Walker). We get convincing flashes of fast-food life in these early scenes, which feel written from the inside out, capturing the little irritations and personality conflicts that come to define grinding it out for minimum wage. Sandra and Becky have a slightly tense relationship, and that may be part of why Sandra doesn’t really give Becky the benefit of the doubt when the police officer calls.
He tells Sandra that her employee has stolen some money from a customer’s purse. They have the victim’s testimony, and their own surveillance to back it up. Now, they can do one of two things here: they can come down to the restaurant, and take Becky out in cuffs, and take her down to headquarters, book her, search her. Or Sandra could just perform the strip search herself. Her call.
Of what follows, I’ll say no more. Suffice it to say that Compliance is a tough movie to watch, a harrowing button-pusher—both in the metaphorical sense, and in a literal one, since it seems such a keenly perceptive update of the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures. You’ve heard about it (it’s in Ghostbusters, for God’s sake)—a pair of test subjects were brought in for observation, with one administering potentially lethal electric shocks to the other, as instructed by the experimenter. It was a ruse; the subject receiving the shocks (which were not real) was an actor. The purpose of the experiment was to see how far the subject would go to follow the instructions of the authority figure, even if it violated one’s own conscience.
Those are still valid and important questions, and it would be fairly easy to turn this story into some sort of broad parable for whatever political ideology you’d care to. The writer/director leaves that to the viewer; he’s more interested in this as a personal tale of conformity and violation. “Do we really have to do this?” Becky asks. “Honey, it’s not up to me,” Sandra replies.
One might ask—not unreasonably—why an audience would want to subject themselves to witnessing this young woman’s humiliation. But the film is effective on both the psychological and the personal level; Zobel is fascinated by not only the acquiescence of that power, but by the transfer of it, and the intoxication of it as well. It’s all so cruel, and so dehumanizing. Zobel doesn’t sensationalize the story (frankly, he doesn’t have to), but he does thread the needle very gently, unpeeling the layers of deception at a steady pace, understanding how upsetting it is, and pushing on.
The performances are natural, grounded, and sturdy. Dowd, an accomplished character actor, displays Sandra’s Midwestern kindness, and then shows how quickly it can dissipate. Walker’s performance is mostly physical, and she’s enormously sympathetic. Ashlie Atkinson, as Sandra’s assistant, adroitly shows how a little bit of concern is often not enough. And Pat Healy, so likable in The Inkeepers, is just chilling here.
Zobel’s direction occasionally lapses; he employs a score that is too bombastic by half (there’s no need to add extra drama to this story), and has us staring at a character we’ve never met for a good minute of screen time at a particularly inopportune point near the story’s conclusion. These are minor concerns, and all forgotten by the riveting ending, in which the film makes its point and then remarkably holds the camera a beat longer, and then another, and then another. And then it supplies an additional piece of information that’s like a punch in the gut. Then again, the whole movie’s kind of like that.
"Compliance" is playing this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival.