A workplace’s warped reality
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 24, 2012
“Compliance,” by writer-director Craig Zobel (“Great World of Sound”), created something of a kerfuffle when it played at Sundance earlier this year, reportedly prompting walkouts and angry outbursts during the filmmaker’s Q-and-A session. So it arrives in theaters with just the right amount of controversial baggage to make it seem like the must-see edgy indie of the season.
The truth is far less explosive. “Compliance” is an extraordinarily assured, well-made drama, signaling a promising career for Zobel, an adroit filmmaker with a talent for taut pacing and staging. But it also fails its first test, which is that the audience believe every word of it. “Compliance” is based on a true story. But filmgoers may find themselves hard-pressed to suspend disbelief enough to enter its increasingly warped reality, in part because of Zobel’s own aesthetic choices.
As the film opens, a fast-food restaurant manager named Sandra (Ann Dowd) is getting her busy evening shift started, coping with a freezer left open by mistake, a load of ruined food and an angry truck driver. As her staff arrives and gets to work, the emotional tectonics continue to shift, gaining in fractious intensity as the rush hour descends. When Sandra receives a phone call about one of her workers, a pretty girl named Becky (Dreama Walker), she’s all business, save for the pent-up resentments constantly at play between the two women.
That phone call leads Sandra and Becky into an increasingly high-charged encounter, which will ultimately give way to even more troubling confrontations with other employees and individuals outside the restaurant. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the experiments in obedience of psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo will be able to predict to what squirm-inducing lengths “Compliance’s” otherwise sympathetic protagonists will go to please authority, no matter how shadowy.
With its pins-and-needles atmosphere of ambient hostility, economic anxiety and power shifts -- between youth and age, management and labor -- “Compliance” can in many ways be seen as an unforgiving parable of our age, in which working-class disempowerment takes on the cruelest psychological and physical dimensions.
But if familiarity with the clinical psychological roots of “Compliance” make it believable, the garden-variety “Law & Order” fan may have trouble accepting the story’s outlandish premise. (Zobel adds a postscript that similar scenarios were reported at least 70 times throughout the country.) Still more problematic is Zobel’s decision to cast Walker -- who can be seen on the sitcom “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23” -- as Becky, whose trials grow more harrowing as the story progresses (or devolves).
Whereas Dowd, one of the screen’s great character actresses, and the rest of the cast sustain the naturalism necessary to make “Compliance” the potent exercise Zobel intends, the shapely, preternaturally camera-ready Walker irrevocably changes the dynamic. The result is that, as Zobel fixes his and the audience’s gaze on Becky’s tribulations, he blurs a troubling boundary between abhorring her humiliation and engaging in it.
What’s more, Zobel makes a curious move midway through “Compliance” to take the action out of the restaurant and into the world of an outside character, letting the air out of the tense psychological hothouse he’s so carefully constructed -- and signaling yet another curious shift in perspective.
“Compliance” puts its characters and viewers through a perverse, even sadistic, kind of hell, and the audience is entitled to ask toward what end. Zobel is well on his way to having a solid career -- his next film stars Tobey Maguire -- but we’re the ones left feeling used and abused.
Contains profanity, sexual content and nudity.