Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” is pure provocation. The movie means to infuriate its audience in a slow, sadomasochistic game where the actions of a group of uncommonly witless characters edge the horror/drama closer and closer to absurdity.
Zobel, who wrote and directed, hides behind the assurance that this is “based on true events.” In fact, the end credits insist that 70 or so similar incidents have occurred in the past decade. Meaning “strip search” prank phone calls where a caller posing as a cop demands increasingly troubling actions against one person and everyone including the victim complies.
One would like to know much more about these 70 vicious pranks to agree this is a true event, but let’s say even one went down like this. (The chief incident cited in press notes is a 2004 case at a McDonald’s in suburban Kentucky.) Does this really deserve a movie dramatization? Or rather does this give permission to a director to push audience buttons and demean his own characters?
The entire story revolves around a single phone call. On the receiving end is a fast-food joint. While that is apparently where the Kentucky situation took place, you can’t escape the film’s implication that employees and patrons of such an establishment are a few French fries short of a Happy Meal.
Certainly the opening minutes prior to the Phone Call, as mostly young employees get ready for their shift, do nothing to convince you that this isn’t one grubby eating establishment where only lower life forms would work or eat.
Then comes a phone call taken by the high-strung manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). A male caller (Pat Healy) identifies himself as a police officer and states that a customer has complained to police that a female employee stole money from her purse earlier in the day.
For whatever reason, Sandra decides he means a young blonde named Becky (newcomer Dreama Walker) and immediately forgets that it was she and not the “officer” who identified her. The caller then instructs Sandra in a calm, no-nonsense voice to begin the investigation herself as no officer can come to the restaurant at the moment. This investigation includes a search of Becky’s clothes and then a strip search in Sandra’s rear office.
It escalates from there. More employees and even Sandra’s fiancé are called into “help” with a police investigation that from the audience point of view is clearly a prank. Even unschooled Americans have seen enough TV cop shows to know that police don’t call you up and demand you do their work for them.
But no one ever asks the caller for further identification or gets a number where they might call him back. And stressed-out Sandra must always “go back out” to oversee the busy restaurant just when the caller insists on a more demeaning procedure against the young women, procedures she may well have vetoed. Such as naked jumping jacks (to dislodge money hidden in a bodily orifice) or a spanking for momentarily refusing to obey a command.
With tight shots and smart camera moves, Zobel does built tension within the confined space of the restaurant back rooms. But what may bother you is the realization that what is happening to this employee is actually happening on camera to the young actress. She’s being exploited — humiliated and degraded — for a movie.
Apparently this was one of the really despised films at 2012 Sundance by many festival-goers. Well, it does spark controversy. The situation dramatized bears comparison to the so-called Stanford prison experiment in 1971 where the guise of authority brought about the passive acceptance of abuse.
The nude scenes are handled as discreetly as they can be and Walker acquits herself admirably under the circumstances. The other roles are also ably played in a realistic manner even if what you’re watching borders on the surreal.
Nothing here equates to entertainment. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt in every instance, this is still a film where the conversations afterwards will be more compelling than the actual experience of watching the film.
Opens: August 17, 2012 (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: Dogfish Pictures, Muskat Filmed Properties, Low Spark Films and Bad Cop/Bad Cop Productions
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCafrey
Director/screenwriter: Craig Zobel
Producers: Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Tyler Davidson, Theo Sena, Craig Zobel
Executive producers: David Gordon Green, James Belfer, Carina Alves
Director of photography: Adam Stone
Production designer: Matthew Munn
Music: Heather McIntosh
Costume designer: Karen Malecki
Editor: Jane Rizzo
No rating, 90 minutes