Compliance, writer-director Craig Zobel's provocative second feature (following the little-seen Great World of Sound, which screened at the 2007 Indie Memphis Film Festival), made a buzzy debut at Sundance earlier this year. And while the story it tells might strain credulity, Compliance is not only based on a true story but on a crime that's apparently been repeated, successfully, dozens of times.
The film is set in a fast-food restaurant ("ChickWich") in Ohio (the actual case on which the film is based happened in Kentucky), and early scenes ably sketch workplace dread and alienation without hard-selling too much. If you've worked corporate retail in any form, much less fast-food, there may be an uncomfortable sense of recognition. Along the way, Zobel deftly fills in character detail — small workplace resentments and anxieties — that will inform the psychology of what's to come.
And what's to come is something more sinister than the typical workday hurdles and indignities. It's a call to store manager Sandra (an utterly relatable Ann Dowd) from a man claiming to be a police officer investigating charges that one of her employees, pretty blond teenager Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen money from a customer. Already concerned about her job security and perhaps a little resentful of Becky's mild mean-girl self-absorption, the middle-aged, newly engaged Sandra follows instructions from the man on the other end of the line, even submitting a reluctant but ultimately compliant Becky to a backroom strip search. And then it goes further.
Zobel works through the beats of this story in a tidy, straightforward way, and his depiction of Becky's degradation is reserved enough to dodge — at least for this viewer — suspicions of exploitation, though it's impossible not to wonder how the film would play with a less attractive victim or not to think about why such a casting choice would be unlikely.
Those considerations aside, Compliance is a commanding piece of work. In trying to understand how ordinary people could be so gullible, Zobel crafts an allegory about submission to authority that resonates beyond this wild, ripped-from-the-headlines story.
Opening Friday, September 21st
Studio on the Square