Do you do as you’re told?
Craig Zobel’s Compliance is a thinly fictionalized accounting a true crime - a true crime so weird that audiences at Sundance had a hard time believing what they saw in the film. A phone call came into a fast food restaurant, purportedly from a cop. The officer told the restaurant’s manager that one of her employees was a thief, and he needed her help in recovering the money she stole. That began a multi-hour ordeal where an innocent young girl was strip searched, spanked and finally sexually abused - all at the command of a voice on the telephone.
What does that disbelief mean for the film? If people walk out of the movie and don’t understand what happened or why, does it mean the film failed? Or is there just a mental block in viewers - especially the upscale type that comes to Sundance - which won’t allow them to accept that in the right circumstances they too would behave reprehensibly at the behest of ‘authority.’
Zobel, who also wrote the script, has created a remarkably tense and uncomfortable film, one that doesn’t exploit the situation (despite the claims of a few at an explosive Q&A; star Dreama Walker is actually rarely shot nude, even though her character is naked for much of the film). But Zobel’s script may not quite go far enough. The film shows us how the caller (played with creepy menace just below suburban normalcy by Pat Healy) manipulates people into humiliating the employee, but the script skips the most important moment - when the strip searches and cavity searches turn into actual sexual assault. Zobel elides the scene, keeping us distant from the caller’s psychological tactics.
The movie also falters at the end; Zobel sticks to the true story right up to the conclusion, which means what was a tight two location film - the restaurant and the caller’s home - suddenly turns into a procedural for the last five minutes. It’s an unnecessary epilogue, one that feels calculated to give ordinary viewers a taste of closure.
But the stuff before that is often remarkable. Zobel has assembled a terrific ensemble of actors, and they put themselves right into the roughest parts of human experiene. Dreama Walker portrays a slow breakdown of will, a performance that might seem too subtle to those waiting for a ‘big scene’ where the character snaps. The point isn’t that we snap, it’s that we’re eroded, worn away.
Young actor Philip Ettinger also gives a strong performance. He’s a fast food employee who obviously is into Walker’s character, but when confronted with a voice of authority that empowers him to take advantage of the girl he rebels. Too often men are portrayed as simply evil pussyhounds, but Ettinger gives us a character whose refusal is noble without being wimpy.
Healy is the center of the film, a nasty glue. His character is one of those tough types - he’s so good at what he does you sort of can’t help but root for him. Every time he gets someone to do something else crazy or offensive over the phone Healy has a disbelieving smile on his face; the fact that he spends his time making sandwiches and hanging around rather than psychotically masturbating or drooling actually makes the character scarier.
Finally there’s Anne Dowd, playing the restaurant manager. It’s another great performance, this time showing our susceptibility to feeling important. Sandra the manager isn’t a bad person, and she’s trying her best, but when placed in a position of seeming authority by the police, she manages to turn a blind eye to serious abuses.
Compliance will make you uncomfortable. It will make you squirm in your seat. But it never quite gets to where it needs to be; if truth is stranger than fiction, you have to up your fiction to match. Zobel is too journalistic with his film, and in the end he’s unable to make the audience fully understand why this is happening. How this could happen. And how this could happen to them.