Friday, August 24, 2012

Docudrama 'Compliance' shows peril of following orders

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 at 12:25 PM

WHICH HUNT: Dreama Walker in Compliance
The skin-crawling drama Compliance primarily takes place in the back office of a humble fast food restaurant, among the spare aprons and boxes of supplies. What transpires there, however, strains credulity nearly as much the outlandish spectacle of a sci-fi summer blockbuster. But no matter how much Compliance challenges its audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, writer/director Craig Zobel based the film closely on the facts of a genuine incident. Compliance might seem impossible, but it actually happened — or at least, something very much like it did.

It begins with a bad day at “Chickwich” for the middle-aged manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). A freezer door was left open all night, so the restaurant’s low on bacon and pickles. A corporate secret shopper may visit that day. Her employees, including pretty, young Becky (Dreama Walker) clearly hold her in low esteem.

The usual rush of orders grows exponentially more complicated when Sandra takes a call from a man (The Innkeepers’ Pat Healy) claiming to be a police officer named Daniels. According to Daniels, he has Sandra’s regional manager on another line and a witness who claims that Becky recently stole money from her person. “We also have one of our surveillance units backing up her claim,” says Daniels, whose sounds like a credible officer of the law. Daniels alludes to being involved in a larger investigation involving Becky and asks Sandra to detain the young woman in a back room, question her and search Becky’s belongings. Then he asks for Becky to be strip-searched.

This review won’t reveal what happens next, except to say that Becky’s ordeal goes further, over a longer period of time, than you’d imagine any reasonable person would allow. Compliance elicits such revulsion and rage that its Sundance Film Festival premiere included walkouts and heated discussions in the post-film Q&A session.

Zobel won the Grand Jury Award of the Atlanta Film Festival for his previous film, Great World of Sound, a melancholy comedy about would-be musicians dreaming of success that will never come. Compliance takes an even more clinical perspective on its characters and events. The restaurant comes across as a shabby, disheartening environment from the very beginning, and the grace notes of workplace friendships seem minor compared to the high-pressure job with frequent scoldings from supervisors and customers. Perhaps the shadows of corporate and police authority soften up the characters’ ability to resist inappropriate demands.

Early on, Dowd establishes Sandra’s wounded dignity, which makes her performance all the more chilling when she eagerly passes the buck for Becky’s welfare to a voice on the phone. “I have to take full, final responsibility,” insists Daniels, and he preys on the emotional vulnerabilities of the two women and other characters, including Sandra’s sad-sack boyfriend (Bill Camp). All the performers create sympathetic, credible-seeming characters, which would be a boon for any other movie.

In Compliance, however, we struggle to believe that these characters would submit to the things they do, and despite the film’s factual basis, it maybe that Zobel and company simply fail to capture the dynamics that occurred with the real people. Then again, the story could be such an anomalous event, with such dark implications for human nature, that no fictionalized re-creation could do it justice. Next week’s Atlanta release of The Imposter presents a similar case of inexplicable behavior, but avoids the credibility issue by unfolding as a documentary. Zobel recounts as profoundly upsetting tale with Compliance but it could be that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not with its stars but with ourselves.

Compliance. 3 stars. Directed by Craig Zobel. Stars Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker. Rated R. Opens Fri., Aug. 24. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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