by Glenn Lovell
How whipped are we as a nation? How intimidated are we by the omnipresent “Voice of Authority”? How much have we bought into the notion that Big Brother is not only watching but has a right to watch?
These are some of the questions that popped into mind as I squirmed through Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” easily one of the most provocative, thought-provoking films of the year. Shot on location in southern Ohio and said to be “based on true events,” this indie has the lingering impact of a gruesome freeway pileup ‒ you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself.
Veteran character actress Ann Dowd stars as Sandra, the manager of a fast-food franchise called ChickWich. Sandra, like many small business owners, has what you might call authority issues: She both lords it over her workers and pals around with them, at times even awkwardly trading sexual innuendos. Sandra sees herself as a good, caring boss, an enlightened despot, if you will; but she’s aware that her mostly teen-age staff ridicules her behind her back.
On a particularly stressful morning ‒ an undercover person from corporate is expected at any moment ‒ Sandra receives a call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels of the local police department. Daniels explains that one of a Sandra’s employees, a willowy cashier named Becky (Dreama Walker), has been observed talking money from a customer’s purse and said customer has lodged a complaint. Explaining that he has been detained at another crime scene, Daniels essentially deputizes Sandra, who is both flattered and excited by her role as community cop. Per Daniels’ instructions, she calls Becky on the carpet.
What happens from here on out will make your skin crawl. In what can only be described as a sadomasochistic mind-game, Office Daniel (Pat Healy) explains Becky’s options (go along with the ad-hoc interrogation or face jail time) and forces her to comply with, first, a third-degree and then a strip-search that leaves her naked in front of coworkers and, eventually, Sandra’s partially inebriated boyfriend (Bill Camp).
What would lead both victim and surrogate jailor to acquiesce to an anonymous phone voice that soon segues from clipped and officious to stammering and salacious? Sandra raises an eyebrow but soon recognizes a kindred spirit on the other end of the line; Becky sobs and maintains her innocence but all-too-easily relents to the most humiliating demands. As orchestrated by Zobel in what is essentially a running dialogue, the answers are neither pretty nor pat. In a society beset by violence and unemployment, we have been preprogrammed to ask “How far?” when ordered to bend over. We listen to the Officer Daniels of the world because 1) they have the police-speak down pat, strategically dropping power words like “full disclosure” and “insubordination,” and 2) like all good Catholics, we believe we’re intrinsically guilty.
In the tradition of Germany’s “Das Experiment” and Bryan Singer’s “Public Access” — two other indies about mass manipulation — “Compliance” floats an extreme-case scenario that’s at once preposterous and all too plausible. Dowd, who infuriates as the made-to-order patsy, is so good she should be short-listed for Oscar consideration. Ditto Zobel in the original screenplay category.
COMPLIANCE ✮✮✮✮ With Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp. Directed, scripted by Craig Zobel. 89 min. Rated R (for profanity, suggested sexual situations, nudity)