2012 // USA // Craig Zobel // August 22, 2012 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
More often than not, the declaration "Inspired by True Events" serves as a marker that the film in question will, in fact, bear little resemblance to reality. In the case of writer-director Craig Zobel's discomfiting, slow-motion thriller Compliance, however, the resemblance is fairly uncanny, at least as far as narrative features go. Zobel revises the setting from the McDonalds in Kentucky where the events actually took place to a fictional "ChickWich" in Ohio. He also changes the names of the individuals involved, and tweaks a few other details. However, in the main, Compliance is a rigorously faithful depiction of the horrifying events that unfolded at the aforementioned McDonald's in 2004. (Zobel evidently had plenty of source material to work from: The whole incident was captured on security tape, and was later recounted in both criminal and civil trials.) This makes Zobel's feature a sort of film à clef, although unlike the usual examples of the form, the people depicted are not public figures, but the ordinary victims and perpetrators of a bizarre crime. That crime was the final, repulsive flourish on one of the strangest telephone pranks in American history, triggering the capture of alleged perpetrator David R. Stewart.
Compliance introduces all of its principals in the first ten minutes or so: Harried middle-aged restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), shift supervisor Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), teenaged chicken-slingers Becky (Dreama Walker) and Kevin (Philip Ettinger), and Sandra's fiancé Van (Bill Camp), whose significance to the story only becomes apparent later. The events of the films take place over the course of several hours, on a gray, slushy, but nonetheless busy day at the ChickWich restaurant. One of Zobel's apparent additions to the tale: A freezer left ajar the previous evening has resulted in spoiled food. The mistake prompts Sandra to dress down her employes, although she pointedly does not report it to the corporate higher-ups. This little character detail renders Sandra's subsequent behavior marginally less surprising.
Partway through the day, the restaurant receives a phone call from a man identifying himself only as "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy). He informs Sandra that Becky has been "under surveillance" and that an unnamed customer has accused her of stealing money. At Daniels' request, Sandra hustles Becky into a combined office and stockroom, and there she forcibly searches the girl's purse and pockets. Becky objects in a disbelieving, panicky sort of way to both the accusations and the search, but ultimately complies out of faint exasperation. ("Let's Just Get This Over With" is revealed as the recurring phrase of the film, either stated out loud or implied by facial expressions and body language.) The initial search turns up no stolen money in Becky's possession, so Daniels suggests—reluctantly, of course—that Sandra perform a strip-search of the girl.
Things... escalate from there, but to reveal more would be to rob Compliance of its potency as a thriller, which relies on the indefinite character of the narrative's trajectory. The viewer is not entirely certain where the film is headed, save that it is almost assuredly to a Bad Place. There are ample opportunities for the whole nightmare to be brought to a halt, and part of the sadistic cunning of Zobel's script is how easily these moments glide by unnoticed, only appearing tauntingly in the rearview mirror. It's a mistake to regard Compliance's characters as though they were the dim-witted slasher film Meat, whose foolish behavior can be unfavorably compared to one's own clear-headed thinking. ("I would never have done that...") Zobel doesn't expend energy tut-tutting the errors in judgment (and outright criminal acts) committed by Sandra and the others, nor is he preoccupied with sneering at "Officer Daniels" in self-righteous disgust. The director plainly discerns the story's potential for eliciting an atmosphere of nauseating moral free-fall, and he devotes himself whole-heartedly to the task of crafting Compliance into an unexpectedly evocative, vérité thriller rather than a Grand Statement on the Human Capacity for Evil. (Heather McIntosh's score, filled with long, wandering passages of bells and strings, assists with this ambition quite splendidly.)
This straightforward approach is both a boon and a curse to Compliance, which is ridiculously engrossing for virtually every minute of its running time, but does little that warrants a second viewing. It is, in essence, a one-trick pony, which is not to say that Zobel's methods aren't worthy of attention. The treatment of Compliance's story as a kind of stranger-than-fiction anecdote staged for maximum effect proves to be a gratifying approach. Zobel manages to strike a capable balance between the absurd and the grave in the film's tone, all without doing disrespect to the real-world flesh-and-blood victims behind the tale.
The most distracting elements in Compliance prove to be those that detract from the film's verisimilitude. To wit: One wishes that the film-makers had cast with an eye towards true newcomers. The presence of familiar indie character actors such as Healy and Atkinson (normally a welcome sight) provides a perpetual reminder that one is witnessing a fiction. Similarly, Walker's movie-star gorgeous face and model-perfect figure seem out of place within the film's greasy, creased Heartland setting. Casting nitpicking aside, Walker in particular gives a remarkable, vital performance, quite apart from the gushing about her "bravery" that any nudity-heavy role inevitably elicits. Her depiction of Becky's utter collapse and, eventually, dead-eyed resignation is the film's most singular, stunning emotional node.