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The words “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” fill the frame at the beginning of Compliance, as though writer-director Craig Zobel knows you won’t possibly believe it. Stats at the end of the film back up the claim. If the real-life stories that gave rise to Zobel’s script even closely resemble what we see onscreen, however, weep for America, and let go of any notion that humans are intelligent, critically thinking beings.
Compliance is terrifically engrossing, though, at least until it reaches its give-me-a-fucking-break point. The film is set at an Ohio fast-food restaurant named ChickWich, where plain, middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) tries to simultaneously hide huge gaffes from her GM, run a tight ship with the limited resources she has, and alternately be a hardass and act “cool” among her teenage staff. (The latter is so awkward—and involves earnest usage of the word “sexting”—as to be as shiver-inducing as some of the more viscerally awful things that happen later in the film.) Sandra is a pleaser and wants to be liked by everyone.
Which partly explains why she never raises any questions when a self-proclaimed police officer, Daniels (Pat Healy), calls her on a busy Friday night and alleges that one of her employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer’s purse. He says his “surveillance crew” can back up the woman’s claim, and that he has Sandra’s GM on the other line. Daniels wants Sandra to get Becky into the office and question and strip-search her. Becky insists she didn’t do anything, and Sandra seems to believe her, speaking to her softly and calling her “honey.” But she does what the officer says anyway, even when his over-the-phone commands become increasingly invasive.
Daniels is persuasive—to a point. You can accept that anybody, especially a frazzled manager, might buy part of his story and agree to detain the teen in question until other authorities arrive. But that’s the problem: Sandra doesn’t find it unusual that this call goes on for more than an hour without another patrolman showing up. Even in the smallest Ohio town, there’s got to be more than a handful of cops around. Why doesn’t Sandra just insist she’ll watch Becky until backup arrives, but nothing more?
The “more” mostly happens when Sandra hands off the phone to others, including male customers, whenever she has to go about her duties—and that’s when Compliance really goes bananas. Zobel wants to fire up a conversation, about why Sandra and the others blindly follow an unseen stranger’s orders, and whether the viewer would, too. Sandra even gets chummy with Daniels, gushing when he tells her she’s done a good job, even as she visits humiliation after humiliation on Becky. Is anyone that desperate to please?
But more important: Is Compliance exploitative? Possibly; it depends on how much of it actually stems from true events and what’s a product of Zobel’s imagination. There’s stark nudity that could have been more tastefully handled. You could argue that not obscuring it adds power to Becky’s humiliation—which I might buy, if Walker wasn’t a beauty with a gorgeous body. Becky, for her part, repeatedly submits to Daniels’ commands, even if she sometimes mutters, “This is so stupid.” By the time Daniels is insisting on information such as “How big are her nipples?” and her current guardian answers, you can agree: Yes, Becky, yes it is.