What would you do? Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the frumpy and put-upon manager of a fictional Ohio fast food joint called ChickWich. She runs a staff of shiftless teenage employees, and admonishes them for leaving freezers open. Her world doesn’t seem to extend too far past the ChickWich parking lot. When a man calls the ChickWich claiming to be a cop, and claiming that one of her underlings has stolen from a customer, why it’s all she can do to comply with the cop’s demands. Poor teenage Rebecca (Dreama Walker) is hauled into the back office of the ChickWich, where she is ordered by Sandra – acting on instructions fed to her over the phone – to strip. Eventually, the over-the-phone instructions lead to further humiliation at the hands of other employees and eventual sexual assault (kept tastefully off-screen) at the hands of Sandra’s fiancée Van (Bill Camp).
This is all based on a true event that took place in 2004, at cleaves closely to actual events, although, from what I understand, the real case did not involve any kind of sexual contact. Although there was stripping and jumping jacks involved.
Like a white trash Michael Haneke, Craig Zobel’s Compliance attempts to dissect the psychology of such a situation. We all like to think that we’d be sharp enough to defy vague over-the-telephone instructions, and we’d be familiar enough with the law to know when we were being ordered to do something illegal and wrong, but Compliance seems to imply that most of us, when in the right situation, would demur to authority, however vague. It comments on the way corporate desperation can make us vulnerable to exploitation. Strong meat here. You’ll spend the bulk of the film squirming in your seat, wanting to yell at the on-screen characters to wise up.
Thanks to the performances of Dowd and Walker, the unbalanced power play feels palpable and real. Dowd especially wrings the workaday need for corporate and authoritarian acceptance for all its worth, making a desperate and perhaps none-too-bright Sandra seem like someone we’ve met, and, quite possibly, someone we could be. There is also an interesting element of sexual complacency on the part of Rebecca, who, near the film’s end, is asked why she never refused to strip, and was always ready to submit to nude humiliation. “It was just going to happen.” This is a woman who is used to submitting to men, it seems. Plus, making Rebecca a pretty young blonde also, perhaps, makes some of the men in the audience complicit. Compliance doesn’t exploit her, but does shove a few sexual fantasies in our faces.
The film mostly works. While the look at psychology is fascinating, Zobel makes the flaw of showing the mysterious caller (Pat Healy) on screen. By explaining to the audience that the man calling is indeed not a cop, we’re given a sort of moral out. I would have appreciated some more ambiguity. True, by the time Rebecca is being forced to do naked jumping jacks, we would understand that this is not a cop, but leaving the identity of the caller a mystery would have, perhaps, driven the point home a little better. For much of the film, as the actions escalate, it can start to feel a little cheap, and that Zobel is now just prodding us.
But only a little bit. On the whole, Compliance is a fascinating study, and a wicked little discomfort drama. At the very least, it’ll get some good discussions started. First question: Would you actually comply? At your job? If you didn’t want to get in trouble? Oh, you wouldn’t? Are you sure?