Craig Zobel, who was last at Sundance in 2007 with Great World of Sound, a sharply directed and acted film about a record producing company scam, is back at Sundance this year with a film about a different sort of scam, Compliance, an equally sharp examination of what happens when Sandra, a fast food restaurant manager, receives a phone call from a police officer informing her that one of her young employees, Becky, has been accused of stealing from a customer’s purse and must be detained.
It’s a stressful day for Sandra, one that started with the discovery of a freezer left open and over a thousand dollars of food lost, and the looming possibility of a “secret shopper” quality control visitor, and perhaps that strain contributes to all that unfolds over the next 80 or so minutes of utterly riveting screen time as Sandra complies with the increasingly bizarre requests made by the the caller. And what happens in the course of this story would be unbelievable – if it wasn’t all based on a true case of a McDonald’s manager and employee in Kentucky.
Zobel builds on solid, sympathetic performances by Dreama Walker as Becky and Ann Dowd as Sandra as he weaves this decidedly unsettling tale that’s really about how easily a person can be drawn into complicit obedience to a perceived authority figure, and in doing so commit acts that degrade another human being, even as their conscience and gut instinct should be screaming at them to stop. A friend commented over lunch after today’s screening that this is what the Nazis understood, the way that average people will blindly go along with authority, how they’ll harm others while making the excuse that they themselves were only following orders. It’s easy enough while watching this intensely uncomfortable film to judge these people and think that no one could possibly be so gullible; then we learn at the end that there were over 70 real cases, it makes you just shake your head in despair at the things we humans are capable of.
Compliance has generated a fair degree of controversy here at Sundance, but personally I found it more fascinating than deliberately antagonistic. The story is engrossing on its own merits, in part because you can’t believe what you’re seeing, but also because Zobel does a superb job of building dramatic tension as things escalate from bad to worse. Some terrific editing and cinematography choices effectively guide the tone and tension, as Zobel takes us back and forth between Becky’s plight in the office and the normal, bustling routine of customers coming and going, food bought and consumed, and Becky’s fellow employees going about the routine of their jobs, all the while mostly unaware of what’s happening to their friend and coworker. Zobel also uses a great many insert shots to break the tension at just the right moments, giving us a much-needed break from the dramatic tension and isolation of the office.
It would have been easy to go over the top as things progress in the story, but Zobel is restrained when he needs to be, creating just enough edginess to make the audience increasingly uncomfortable, without crossing the line into our own voyeurism of the unfolding events as exploitation. It’s a fine line, but he manages to walk it. Compliance is by no means an easy film to watch, but it is very, very good.