August 31, 2012

MOVIES: Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)

Compliance begins on a bad day for fast-food manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). Someone didn't close the freezer last night, so she's lost $1,400 of inventory, and the warehouse can't replace the bacon; some of her staff are out sick on the busiest night of the week; and the ones who have shown up aren't her most reliable employees.

But things get much worse when she gets a prank phone call from "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy), who explains that one of her cashiers, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen some money from a customer. She's been under surveillance, Daniels says, for other crimes, and his surveillance team can verify the theft; they're busy searching her home at the moment, though, so Daniels needs Sandra to take custody of Becky and strip-search for to find the money. Sandra is skeptical at first, but Daniels has an answer to every objection, and pushes all the right buttons -- flattery, intimidation, fear -- to convince her to go along.

From there, the movie becomes a Milgram-esque study in how far ordinary people will go to follow orders, even when they have no evidence that the person giving those orders has any authority to do so. Watching how easily Sandra and Becky, and the others who are pulled into the situation, can be manipulated is a chilling experience.

The principal performances are superb. Ann Dowd is one of those middle-aged character actresses who work steadily in small movie roles and TV guest appearances without ever being noticed, and she is spectacularly good here, trying to balance her own sense of decency and propriety with the desire to be a good citizen and employee, always finding a way to distance herself from the things she's being asked to do.

Dreama Walker, whom you might recognize from the sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, plays Becky as a young woman who's a bit sheltered and naive, and lacks the quickness of mind or the self-confidence to protest against what's happening to her; you can see her deliberately willing herself into numbness, and it's painful to watch.

There will likely be arguments over whether the movie, which is certainly about exploitation, crosses the line into being exploitative. I don't think it does. It's true that Walker is naked, or nearly so, for much of the movie, but director Craig Zobel does not use that nudity for titillation, and the most degrading parts of Becky's ordeal are shown to us indirectly. What we imagine is worse than what we actually see.

The scariest thing is that the movie is based on actual events. Similar fake phone calls were received by over 70 fast food restaurants over a period of several years before a suspect was finally arrested; he was never convicted, but the calls did stop after his arrest.

Compliance is not always an easy movie to watch. There were moments when I found myself turning away from the screen, not because it's physically graphic, but because it's so emotionally raw and intense. But it's a powerful experience, with a tight screenplay -- there's not a wasted word of dialogue -- and some of the best acting you'll see this year.

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