Middle-aged Ohio Chickwich manager Sandra (Ann Dowd, " Marley & Me," "The Art of Getting By") tries to fraternize with her employees, but most cannot see past her unbending corporate rules keeping to let her in. When she gets a call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, "The Innkeepers") claiming to investigate her 18 year-old employee Becky (Dreama Walker, TV's 'Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23') and asking for her assistance, Sandra and just about everyone she asks for help from are cajoled, manipulated and bullied into showing their "Compliance."
Writer/director Craig Zobel ("Great World of Sound") read the article about the Kentucky MacDonald's case that publicized a series of prank phone calls, about 70 throughout the United States from 1995 to 2004, which resulted in strip searches, sexual abuse and rape and decided it would make an intriguing psychological thriller. But even though his film is based on truth-is-stranger-than-fiction fact (see the real case stories here) and its psychology backed up by the Yale University Milgram electroshock experiment of the early 1960's, he forgets that less is often more and his film loses credibility. It also feels like a short padded into feature length. But "Compliance" has one strong element strongly in its court and that is Ann Dowd's sympathetic martinet.
Zobel lays his groundwork well, opening with a montage of the Chickwich parking lot, itself a collection of containments and admonishments. Becky's coworker Kevin (Philip Ettinger, "Twelve") ribs her about parking too close to the restaurant against company guidelines. They walk in to Sandra's obvious displeasure, the rest of the staff gathered and waiting. Someone didn't close the freezer door fully the night before and they now face the weekend low on bacon and pickles. Sandra is stressed and down one employee for their busiest night of the week.
Then Sandra gets the call. An Officer Daniels tells her a pretty, young blond employee ('Becky?' 'Yes.') stole money from a customer who Daniels has there with him. When Sandra expresses doubt, Daniels tells her 'his surveillance team' corroborated the story. Right off the bat, we're calling foul and this is where Zobel makes his biggest mistake - imagine how more effective this would be if he at least managed to hoodwink his audience for just a little bit of Sandra's trip. Becky, who will be subjected to four hours of humiliation and abuse, is hard to sympathize with because of her utter lack of self preservation. When she is told the score by her boss, who begins by treating her as innocent until proved otherwise, she denies it of course, but the girl never thinks to ask for a surveillance tape check, even later when we see her sitting staring at the cameras. In fact, she puts up with everything to avoid being taken down to the station and booked (the real victim begged to be taken to the station). In the end everyone just seems excessively stupid because we have never been complicit. By the time Sandra's fiance Van (Bill Camp, " Public Enemies") is called in to stand guard over the nude teen covered only by an apron, the caller barely masks his lascivious glee and I began to roll my eyes.
Zobel does get small things right, like the way Sandra gradually reinterprets events. The caller knew the victim's name (no, she gave it to him). Once Becky's clothes have been removed from the premises and Daniels' net widened, she becomes the employee who stole something rather than the accused. The caller manipulates her into and out of the room so that she never has the whole picture. On the other hand, this is one of those frustrating screenplays where people too often stop short of asking the obvious.
But Dowd is simply great, the best lead actress performance of 2012 to date. The veteran stage actress so perfectly balances the need to control with the need to be liked (in fact, in the film all her character's employees describe her as 'nice' even though they talk about her behind her back). This is also conveyed in her relationship with her boyfriend who is passive aggressively bossed about while she convinces herself she's doing nothing of the sort. Sandra's innate eagerness to please is stressed when she's caught among Daniels and Becky and her understaffed restaurant and Dowd shows the internal war on her face.
It's difficult to understand the dustup this film caused at Sundance Q&As. Zobel is clearly not exploiting women and, in fact, Bill Camp's Evan is clearly traumatized at what he's 'made' to do. The acting ensemble is interacts naturally, with the exception of Pat Healy, introduced as the voice on the other end of the line and clearly *not* a police officer around the film's midpoint (did Zobel perhaps think this would be some kind of revelation?). Healy lapses into creepy enthusiasm at odds with the traditional psychological manipulation he started off with.
HD digital cinematography by Adam Stone ("Great World of Sound," "Take Shelter") looks it, the visuals drab when most fast food locations are colorful and bright. There is little cinematic about the shooting style except for the occasional slow pan. Editor Jane Rizzo ("Great World of Sound") gradually mixes in closeups, some too obvious like a bubbling deep fryer cutaway, others effective, like Becky's pink polished toenails curled against the linoleum floor. Heather McIntosh's score does its job.
The film's final act feels more like a television dramatization than a continuation as Detective Neals (James McCaffrey, TV's 'Rescue Me') begins to link cases and track the caller, although Dowd's interview brings home just how many lives were ruined falling for this hoax.
"Compliance's" notoriety may tempt viewers, but the case is far more shocking to read about than it is reenacted.
Robin gives "Compliance" a C+..
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