Like the too-trusting teenagers in a slasher flick who go off alone to explore spooky basements, the characters in “Compliance” keep doing so many stupid things that you’ll feel like shouting warnings at the screen. If that suggests that this movie has the sleazy, cheap thrills of a horror flick, well, it’s much too serious for that — which is a problem for this indie film, which has inspired plenty of buzz since its Sundance debut.
Writer-director Craig Zobel’s movie is based on a true story (actually, many stories), and it’s hard to discuss without spoiling its major twist. The twist, you could say, is the movie. So, fair warning to anyone who wants to see it with no pre-knowledge: you should go surf elsewhere now.
Set in the bleakly cheery confines of ChickWich, a fast-food franchise (the evil of banality?), “Compliance” centers on a flustered manager named Sandra (Ann Dowd). She’s reeling from the spoilage of $1,500 worth of bacon after a freezer was left open the night before. But that’s nothing. Already stressed from rumors that her branch will be getting a “secret shopper” visit by a quality-control rep from corporate, she receives an unexpected telephone call. It’s from a man (Pat Healy) who identifies himself as a policeman named Officer Daniels.
Only he isn’t. That’s the hinge of the movie. Sight unseen, with no badge, uniform or even a face to verify that the man on the phone is who he claims to be, Sandra does what he asks her to: haul cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) away from her register and interrogate her in the office. “Officer Daniels” says that a ChickWich customer claims that, while taking her order at the counter, Becky reached into the customer’s purse and snatched some cash.
It’s a ridiculous charge. But Sandra, bending to the alternately brusque and flattering authority in Daniels’ voice, does what he tells her to do. Search Becky’s pockets. Search her purse. And if there’s no pilfered money to be found there, well, a filthy little thief like Becky probably has other filthy places to hide things, doesn’t she? Like under her clothes.
“Compliance” dramatizes the all-too-easy ways that average (and probably even exceptional) people can surrender to authority. The “just following orders” post-Holocaust excuse comes to mind. So does the 1960s Milgram experiment at Yale in which test subjects were encouraged by an authority figure to seemingly administer painful electric shocks to another test subject. As in “Compliance,” they agreed to exercise violence against someone just because they were told to do it.
“Compliance” (which could also be titled “Denial”) is earnestly made and acted and deserves attention. The problem is that, dramatically, it’s increasingly uninteresting to watch. Yes, the ultimate point may be that no one in that restaurant had the backbone, until too late, to question the man on the phone. But the movie could use more sparks of resistance, especially from Becky herself, whose passivity makes her seem almost a willing victim. “Compliance” achieves its tone of claustrophobia so acutely that it becomes wearing; even shy of 90 minutes, it plays long and sometimes feels closer to a thesis than a fully fledged drama. But you know what? It’s still a strong piece of work, albeit within very narrow parameters.
As the initially well-meaning Sandra, Dowd is very good as we watch the character undergo a creeping sense of empowerment over Becky. But it’s hard not to wonder what her fellow everywoman character actor, the brilliant Margo Martindale (“Justified”), might have done with the role. Unseen until 40 minutes into the movie, Healy is also good as the ersatz police officer — a pasty-faced family man as unmotivated in his evil as Iago, and just as effective.
“Compliance.” With Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy. Written and directed by Craig Zobel. Rated R. 89 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.