The best movies encourage audience reaction. "Compliance" forces it on them. In the seven months since Craig Zobel's provocative psychological thriller had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it has faced divisive reactions from viewers around the world. The story, about a fast food manager who is conned into thinking an anonymous caller is a police officer and follows directives to strip-search a young employee, naturally makes people uncomfortable. Some find the experience enlightening; others are wildly infuriated by the human behavior it presents. However, there's always one constant: The crowd speaks up.
"Compliance" opens in New York this Friday, but already it has become the most energizing interactive theatrical experience since "The Room," if for entirely different reasons. The opposite of camp, "Compliance" is designed to make you squirm and maybe even tick you off. Con artistry isn't entirely fresh turf for Zobel, whose 2007 directorial debut "Great World of Sound" followed a pair of salesmen drawn into a pyramid scheme. But where the earlier movie exhibited a warmth toward its hopelessly naive protagonists, "Compliance" stays well away from it. Virtually everyone onscreen is responsible for the bad deeds that take place.
The movie presents itself as a question -- not "could this happen?" but rather "how did this happen?" After announcing the film's true-story basis in the opening credits, Zobel proceeds with his increasingly lurid tale by drawing from legal documents involving roughly 70 similar incidents around the U.S. that took place over the course of a decade beginning in the early '90s. The unsettling pattern found a man calling a restaurant under the guise of a police officer, convincing a manager that an employee had stolen from a customer and coercing him or her to commit any number of physically invasive acts against the accused -- coercion that in some cases culminated in sexual assault.
Zobel draws liberally from these occurrences to construct a fictional account of overworked blue-collar ChickWich manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, in perhaps the year's eeriest turn), who is convinced by the raspy voice (Pat Healy) at the other end of a call to strip-search terrified young employee Becky (Dreama Walker). Trapped in the restaurant's back room for much of the runtime, Becky is subjected to increasingly degrading behavior under Sandra's nervous complicity, as her incapacity to question the motives of the caller nudge her from victim to enabler.
When I first saw "Compliance" in January, I found the performances and scenario riveting but grappled with whether the screenplay sufficiently conveys the process by which a seemingly disciplined and moralistic woman like the middle-aged Sandra could fall for such a transparently disgusting prank. A few viewings later, I'm still not sure if it succeeds, but that's precisely the conundrum that "Compliance" continually encourages to remarkable effect.
It's a shame that the initial case of audience outburst -- when a female audience member at the Sundance premiere accused Zobel of misogyny for presenting Becky's plight in uneasy details -- failed to engage with the actual ideas onscreen. Not for a moment does "Compliance" sympathize with Becky's experience, nor does it mold her treatment into the nightmarish extremes that horror films often portray as caricature. In those cases, good and evil tend to exist at two cleanly defined ends of the scale. "Compliance" operates under the assumption of certain objective standards for human behavior, then watches as they're repeatedly violated. Nobody escapes unscathed, not even the victim. After all, why does Becky go along with these increasingly degrading orders?