Phone-prank cautionary tale ‘Compliance’ loses touch with reality
Is it a tough, but important and timely drama on the “only following orders” mentality, or a gratuitous wallow in abasement and abuse? Audiences at Sundance this year were split over Compliance, the sophomore feature from Craig Zobel; half of them walked out early, the rest stayed to the end and cheered. But the truth of this film’s effectiveness lies somewhere in between these extremes—just as the facts of the case histories on which the story is supposedly based (“INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” scream the opening credits) no doubt lie somewhat to windward of the way they are presented onscreen.
Compliance tells the harrowing story of what happens when a prank caller pretending to be a cop convinces a fast-food restaurant manager and her employees to brutally punish an innocent young co-worker he claims stole from a customer. Incredibly, we’re told at the end that not one, but 70 similar real-life incidents have occurred in 30 states.
Zobel’s intentions are clearly honorable; he wants to make a cautionary tale warning us against innate, lock-step obedience to the illusion of authority. But to do this, his storytelling would have to be so persuasive that any average person watching could imagine himself or herself suckered into the situation in the same way. And it’s in these details—let’s call it the illusion of reality—that the film falls apart.
Fast-food chicken joint manager Sandra (an effective Ann Dowd) lacks the common touch with her much younger employees and tries to toe the corporate line. On a busy Friday afternoon, she gets a phone call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) saying a customer has claimed that pretty, teenage counter girl, Becky (Dreama Walker) stole money from her purse.
Sandra is asked to confine Becky to her office, search her purse and pockets, and, eventually, confiscate the girl’s clothes. Despite the insistence of Becky and her co-workers that the theft never took place, Sandra feels it’s her responsibility to “do what’s right” until the cops come, from strip-searching the girl to leaving her naked in the office for hours, covered only by an apron, to be “watched” by others taking instructions from the anonymous voice on the phone, including Sandra’s wary blue-collar boyfriend (Bill Camp), who’s had a few beers with his buddies.
To Zobel’s credit, he’s never prurient, shying away from showing too many graphic details as the abuse escalates, only suggesting their extent. And he’s careful to lay out the psychological maneuvering involved. As a middle-aged, single woman in a management position, Sandra needs to prove she’s a reliable team player, while the silky caller mixes chatty persuasion techniques (he calls everyone by their first name) with veiled threats and coercion that keep the others off-balance. When he first tells Sandra vaguely that the alleged suspect is “young, blonde …” she immediately supplies the name “Becky.” Later, Sandra claims “he described her perfectly!”
But chances are that not one of the 70 incidents cited dragged on for hours, as this one does, or involved so many people. Five people parade in and out of the office in the course of the day (it appears to be morning when they open the joint, late night when the incident ends; doesn’t this place have day and night shift crews?), some of them not even employees, and only two offer any kind of protest. As no official police with a badge or a warrant ever show up, and the caller’s commands become more sexual, you’d think somebody involved would have at least heard of the concept of an obscene phone call.
The more Zobel tries to make the story dramatic, to stretch it out to feature length, the less credible it becomes. From the very first scene, when a freezer door accidentally left ajar is said to have spoiled a supply of bacon (which is cured and unlikely to rot overnight) and pickles (which are never stored in a freezer anyway; they’re pickled), to the hours Becky spends naked in that apron, the movie loses its tenuous grounding in reality. It devolves into a piece of fiction—and a not very convincing one at that.
★1/2 (out of four)
With Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, and Pat Healy.
Written and directed by Craig Zobel.
A Magnolia release. Rated R. 90 minutes.