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Sundance Review: 'Compliance'

A riveting, frightening fast-food true tale of human behavior and inhuman obedience

By James Rocchi Jan 26, 2012 4:58PM

Rating: 4.5/5

Directed and written by Craig Zobel, "Compliance" stands one of this year's most controversial, and most brilliant, films at Sundance. Huge letters blare at us in the opening moments, cut out from blackness to let grimy Ohio snow and concrete spell out "BASED ON TRUE EVENTS." It is one thing, of course, for a film to be "true." What makes "Compliance" as good as it is, and as scary as it is, is that it is not merely "true," but "honest." It doesn't merely depict things that happened but looks at  what those events mean.  

It's a bad day at the local ChickWich franchise. The manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is dealing with both how someone left the freezer door open last night and destroyed $1,500 worth of food, but also with rumors that a "secret shopper" from corporate is possibly coming by that evening. Sandra is summoned to her back office by a call from a police officer, explaining that a customer is accusing one of her counter girls, Becky (Dreama Walker, light-years from her work on "Gossip Girl" and "The Good Wife"), of stealing money from her purse. Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) asks Sandra to detain Becky until he can come down to the restaurant. But until then, Daniels explains, Sandra has to detain her. And confiscate her phone. And strip-search her. And when other people help the harried Sandra watch and control the scared Becky, Officer Daniels has orders for them, too ...

"Compliance" makes no attempt to hide the turn of its plot, and the film doesn't hinge upon it, either: "Officer Daniels" is a fraud, but even as a voice over the phone he can get Sandra and Becky to obey -- and when Sandra's boyfriend Evan (Bill Camp) is recruited to watch Becky, things get far worse. (Some have found the film clammily exploitative; after reading up on the depravities and indignities of the actual case, I can assure you Zobel actually shows a remarkable amount of restraint.) "Compliance" evokes nothing less than Kafka's "The Trial," where Josef K. is accused of unnamed charges so firmly and fiercely by the apparatus of the state that even he begins to doubt his innocence. But "Compliance" is about far more than the timeless and universal worry -- and, in many cases, hope -- that we will have to submit to a higher authority.

As the score plays out ominously, Zobel keeps going back to shots of the fryers, the grill, the customers and the drink machines -- painting a picture of the sort of corporate capitalism that infests America's strip malls while working solely towards increasing the stock price in the quarterly report, where every possible action by a worker, good or bad, is defined by what Neal Stephenson called the three-ring binders that hold the DNA of every franchise. In other words, if you're paying people a garbage wage to make garbage food, they probably won't be surprised when you treat them like garbage. Because they need the job.  Because after two or three decades of late-stage capitalism, they've been conditioned to believe in authority, no matter how insane its demands.

Is it a jump from the back room at ChickWich to the cells at Abu Ghraib? Zobel doesn't lean too hard on the metaphor switch, but he does show us Becky's battered car, and when "Daniels" threatens and implicates her brother, she shuts down. Hannah Arendt tells the tale of a Jew released from Buchenwald, who recognized the SS man serving his release papers as a former high school classmate. The released prisoner stared, and the SS man said, unbidden, "You have to understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me; they can do whatever they want with me." When Sandra and Becky give up basic humanity to please the "cops," and please the corporate head office, it's hard not to hear an echo of that pragmatic fatalism and cruelty.

Zobel's 2007 "Great World of Sound"was a smart and sweet-but-sharp look at the business of American pop music that succeeded as a truly impressive indie film with its insights and ideas explored through human characters. "Compliance," rough as it is, marks a major step forward, the unflinching and stern human observations of a Michael Haneke set among the deep fryers and milkshake machines.

All of the performers are to be commended for their willingness to take a part in such a challenging film -- the first screening in Park City had its Q&A begin with a woman shouting from the audience, "Sundance, you can do better than this!" -- and they are all excellent. Dowd and Walker capture the scared and charged nature of the event -- Sandra flattered by the officer's compliments and trust, Becky frightened by his insults and threats -- and Healy is perfect as a manipulator who's both practiced and clumsy, fast on his feet but also tripping himself up. And Camp, in a brutally thankless role, hits the perfect balance of victim and accomplice.

"Compliance" is a fascinating and deeply unsettling version of true events, but it goes past that, with art and honesty, to talk about what those true events actually say about our modern race-to-the-bottom minimum-wage age and the timeless, poison-snake hypnotic appeal of simply doing as told. Zobel's given us an ugly story of the ugly world we live in every day, with the employees behind the register taking orders and the management and staff in the back office, in a well-known phrase, explaining how they were only following them.  

("Compliance" is currently premiering at the Sundance film Festival.)

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