If there’s a thin line between presenting unpleasant material to an audience and openly antagonizing them with it, there are going to be a lot of people accusing “Compliance” of the latter, when really what it’s doing is the former. Craig Zobel, the promising writer-director who made “Great World of Sound” in 2007, returns to the big screening with his deeply unsettling second feature, the fictional account of a real incident in which a caller impersonating a police officer contacted a fast food restaurant manager and enlisted her in enacting a sexual assault under the pretense of a criminal investigation. After immediately provoking intense feelings both positive and negative among audience members at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, “Compliance” seems destined to become a lightning rod for controversy, but its success is so great in depicting the damage that can be done through complicity and inaction that the movie’s takeaway message may eventually be confused with the technique used in order to create it.
Ann Dowd (“The Art of Getting By”) plays Sandra, a store manager at an Ohio fast food restaurant whose morning begins badly when she discovers that an employee carelessly ruined a large quantity of important frozen goods. But after simultaneously discovering that a secret shopper may be conducting an evaluation, Sandra’s woes multiply when Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) calls the store and asks her to detain a young checkout girl named Becky (Dreama Walker) who supposedly stole from a customer. Despite Becky’s protests of innocence, Sandra agrees to do what the officer asks, first locking her in the office and then submitting her to a strip search. As Officer Daniels continues to make questionable demands of Sandra, including recruiting her boyfriend Van (Bill Camp) to supervise the naked young woman, events quickly spiral out of control as the people around Becky become inadvertently complicit in her debasement and humiliation.
“Compliance” is an odd film in that it almost seems to help that you know the plot going into it because the behavior of the characters is so shocking and contemptible that it seems necessary to accept that inevitability before it even starts. (Certainly the fact that it’s based on true events will alert viewers to what its content includes.) But what’s truly upsetting about the film is how the characters, based on the behavior of actual people, acquiesce to the demands of an authority figure, no matter how inappropriate or outrageous they are. The audience’s discomfort starts early when Sandra tacitly accepts Officer Daniels’ accusations, but Daniels’ subtle psychological manipulation of her and her employees, and later, boyfriend, is as infuriating as it is plausible, preying fortuitously on a simultaneous combination of external circumstances (the restaurant being busy), poor communication, and a herd mentality in which those involved all come quickly to accept a certain truth about what’s happening, regardless of how false it feels.
While antagonistic films are the ones that many viewers (myself included) have the most trouble watching, those which provoke the viewer by confronting them aggressively with unpleasant ideas or content, “Compliance” is merely documenting the thoughtlessness and poor decisions of the people involved in what was a real-life incident. Needless to say, the material still proves severely affecting, but there’s something about the mundaneness of its context that may prompt audiences to believe they would never fall prey to Daniels’ manipulation. By comparison, the behavior of Kate Winslet’s character in “The Reader,” for example, is set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, and her complicity is more conspicuously outrageous, whereas here, the primary reason we’re certain we’d never do what Sandra does is because we are watching it unfold as a fictional narrative. Meanwhile, it’s equally feasible that any person might succumb to the requests of a police officer whose language and inflection all jibes with our expectations, if perhaps not to the extent that the movie depicts (and which in interviews Zobel has insisted is faithful to real events).
That said, there are plenty of terrible things that happen in the world, and plenty of viewers don’t need to see those things recreated on film. But the only moment in which Zobel falters in this film is in its final scene, when he condemns one character rather than depicting it as objectively as he did during the previous eighty minutes, because to offer a final judgment of his character betrays the film’s central thesis. Moreover, it’s what exposes the film to criticism that it’s prurient or exploitative. If the filmmaker who recreated this incident it couldn’t himself resist evaluating rather than simply examining its psychological underpinnings, why shouldn’t we? Ultimately, as a portrait of what people are willing to accept simply because other people are going along with it, Zobel’s film is an almost endlessly fascinating study of human behavior, disturbingly unflattering as its conclusions may be. And that’s why “Compliance” is as much a meta-textual gauntlet as it is a movie; its subject matter not only deserves, but demands to be discussed and argued about, rather than being simply accepted at face value. [B+]