(Dreama Walker as Becky, above)
by Richard von Busack
If the acting in Craig Zobel’s Compliance (tickets and showtimes here) were as powerful as the premise, it’d be unwatchable. Even as it stands, Compliance is one of those rare painful-to-watch movies that are worth it.
Until you read that Compliance is a fairly accurate account of what happened in the suburbs of Louisville in 2004, the naiveté of the characters here is hard to credit. I think that’s because of the actors Zobel cast, unfamiliar faces who are very good at looking and talking like ordinary Midwestern people. They’re a cast of seasoned character actors, but they don’t communicate why it is that the people they’re playing have collapsed inside. This is likely a correct way to approach the story, given the subject matter. As the incisive title suggests, nearly every person in this film has no will of his or her own.
Dreama Walker plays the victim Becky, and she may have the role of a lifetime here. She has to be an unnuanced and ordinary girl with big eyes and an overbite, who never suspects she’s being manipulated. Becky is passive right down to her sentences: “I just can’t be not having a job now.”
Compliance is set in Ohio during the season of slush. Cinematographer Adam Stone catches not just the ordinariness of American Ordinary but also the squalid side: the parking lots and the litter, an old mural of a space shuttle on a wall. The action is set at a typically stressed fast food chicken restaurant called ChickWich. The weary manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is doing her best to keep the It’s understaffed, because people are calling in sick: “Aaron has that thing that’s going around.” The place is in fear of the corporate office and of “secret shoppers” spying on them.
The staff is just getting through the shift. That’s when a man identifying himself as a police officer (Pat Healy) phones in. A customer has complained that a cashier fitting Becky’s description has stolen some money from her purse. The officer could come in and arrest Becky on the spot. It might go easier on the girl if the manager could just search Becky for the money. And when the money isn’t in her pockets, the “policeman” suggests that perhaps it’s concealed in her clothes…
During the length of the 6 hour or so ordeal that follows, various members take orders from this so-called officer via the phone. Ultimately, Sandra phones in her Joe Sixpack fiancé Van (Bill Camp, in a part you’d love to see J. K. Simmons do) to come in and perform some unpaid guard duty.
(Ann Dowd as Sandra)
Again, this true-life story of credulousness strains the credulity: you can’t follow the characters to the end of the line. But you can believe the direction they’re headed in, if you ever worked the semi-military conditions in fast-food.
The movie underscores our national urge to discipline and punish, which may be unnoticed among the multitudes who put 50 Shades of Grey on the best-seller list. Zobel doesn’t wrap it up for you. In a way, the movie ends with the beginning of the investigation, since the question of how this could have happened is still open. This brave and divisive indie movie offers us a shaming question: why is it that we do what we’re told in the Land of the Free?.
Zobel does a worthy job of taking the erotic completely out of this movie, by concealing Ms Walker from the camera during the worst of what happens. The film’s humanity is never in doubt.
I don’t think Compliance is an exploitive or a manipulative movie. I’ve got a blind spot for rape-revenge movies. I couldn’t tell a good one from a bad one, because I can’t bear any of them. But there’s something that screams inside you when you’re watching this, to get on that phone and shout back at this voice of authority with its need to probe, to know.
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