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Sundance 2012: “Compliance” is a Bloodless Horror Film That I Couldn’t Resist

Sundance 2012: "Compliance" is a Bloodless Horror Film That I Couldn't Resist

For a good portion of Craig Zobel’s twisted new single-setting drama, Compliance,” I had difficulty believing what was happening. The film, which is based on a true story, depicts a busy night at a Midwest fast food restaurant during which a teenage employee is accused of theft, detained in a stock room and consequently strip searched in the process of investigating her alleged crime. The problem is there’s no police detective in sight, though there is supposedly one on the phone dictating irregular procedures to the chicken joint’s manager and staff. And to them it all seems a strange yet acceptable idea to conduct such an outlandish probe by proxy with only the word and authority of an unfamiliar “cop.”

Even after I decided that the voice on the phone couldn’t be that of a true policeman — and continually after seeing the face of the perverted prankster on the other line (played delectably puckish by the great Pat Healy), I couldn’t help but want to yell at the screen in address of how ludicrous it all is, and how stupid the characters were being. And that’s part of the prickly “fun” of this movie. It’s like a horror film without kills or any blood spilled. Horrible things happen that you as the intelligent viewer think could have been avoidable. But as with the girl in a slasher flick who runs the wrong way or hides in the wrong place, we think we’d know better and make different choices than the people in this disturbing game of unconditional obedience. Under the same circumstances, though, would we?

Well, I like to think I’m smarter than the fast food workers in the film, and as someone who was long employed as a manager in a service industry I really hope I maintained good judgement calls. It’s part of the experience with horror films to feel superior to the characters, although in the case of “Compliance” the factual basis adds a level of disappointment that overshadows your enjoyment. Fortunately if you’re unaware of the true events, which have previously inspired a “Law & Order: SVU” episode starring Robin Williams (and is only one of dozens of like-minded incidents), Zobel doesn’t bring that issue up until the end. Otherwise it’s still a severely uncomfortable drama that is equal parts absurdly humorous and painfully upsetting. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it in the week since seeing it.

One of the things that remains on my mind is the connection between the story in “Compliance” and the many documentaries involving forced confession, such as last year’s “Scenes of a Crime” and all of the West Memphis Three films, where it’s often difficult to comprehend how a person can be made to give false, self-incriminating testimony under pressure. Never mind the docs, the truth is it happens all the time in cases that don’t get attention. And there are other comparable instances. I want to believe Zobel is making a bigger statement here, potentially a political one, about how easily people give in to authority, and how authorities, real and fraudulent, often exploit this human flaw of submission (Patriot Act, anyone?).

While we wish for the characters in this film to question what they’re doing and sometimes want to question some of the seemingly improbable plot points as well (Zobel had to make up most of what occurs without full knowledge of the true story)*, I never totally doubted the film as a whole. Zobel convinces us by grounding the story with a realist tone and reliable performances from the entire cast, particularly brilliant and authentic work from Ann Dowd, as the manager, and newcomer Dreama Walker as the unfortunate counter girl. Outside of the direction “Compliance” goes in and its certain scriptedness, I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s small, star-less movie “Bubble,” which features a non-professional actress plucked from a KFC in West Virginia. Dowd, a trained and accomplished thespian (who I’m not familiar with), is remarkable for making me think she was similarly cast for being the real deal.

However, there’s also a touch of “Fargo” in this movie deep beneath the surface, a darkly comic commentary in which Dowd plays a cross between the Marge and Jerry characters. In the end she’s a wonderfully complicated character hardly more faulty than the average person in the sandwich of social-professional structure. She’s boss and employee, in charge and powerless, criminal and victim, self determining and malleable, representative of how most of us feel on a daily basis, at the mercy of higher authorities, only put to unthinkable and illogical extremes. Fittingly, I feel the film itself has an unshakable control over me now, and I believe in it completely.

“Compliance” is currently screening in the NEXT program at Sundance.

Recommended If You Like: “The Boss of it All”; “Bubble”; “Observe and Report”

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter: @thefilmcynic
Follow Spout on Twitter: @Spout

*Correction:  My presumption that Zobel had to make up parts of the narrative are based on the film’s press notes that include the following statement:

With No tapes of the phone conversations in existence, Zobel couldn’t resist writing down ideas of what he could only guess had taken place, verbally.

I have since been told the following:

Craig based all the acts that were portrayed in his film off of the 70 past occurrences of this crime.  He did not make up anything, rather pieced together actual acts which were documented from surveillance cameras in numerous of this occurrences.

I apologize for my assumption, misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the background of this great film.  

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