Would you fall for it? Would you fall for the phony police phone call that ultimately leads to the rape of a teenage fast food worker?
That’s the question Craig Zobel’s Compliance asks relentlessly, deftly, seemingly with every turn the unsettling movie takes.
You don’t think so, right? How could someone, really?
Well, it turns out it has happened (to some degree) dozens of times. A prank caller phones a fast food place, pretends to be a cop and manipulates managers to strip search an employee he says has surely been thieving.
But Zobel’s movie is more than a just based-on-true-events crime story. It’s a psychological experience that pushes you into the mind of characters to the point where you might feel guilty of their mistakes, might understand the shade of their cowardice and unwillingness to check the voice of faceless authority. The film makes you question or at least reflect on the architecture of power in the workplace and hope to all that is human you wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
“The journalism had already been done,” Zobel told me. “I felt like this was sort of an artistic exploration of … the behaviors I feel in me.”
He added: “If you don’t think you’re ever going to be that person, aren’t you leaving a massive hole in your own personal firewall? Isn’t your guard down in a certain way?”
Compliance takes place in a familiar setting: Midwest, winter, suburbs, fast food joint (fried chicken), dirty snow melting in the parking lot. It looks to be a busy night and the chicken joint’s manager (Ann Dowd) is already stressed. Someone left the freezer open and the bacon’s gone bad. But before the dinner rush comes, the phone rings. The caller says he’s a cop and that the pretty blonde girl at the register (Dreama Walker) stole money from a purse. The purse’s owner is upset, the cop says, so the girl will have to be kept in the backroom, without her purse or her phone, under watch, until police come.
This backroom is the place in which you, the viewer, basically find yourself trapped as the film’s thriller-like structure escalates. You’re not so much a fly on the wall as a ghost tethered to a terrible situation. And if you’ve ever worked in fast food, you’ll recognize the cell’s insipid stale light and battle-station quality. It makes an unnerving torture chamber.
And the police, well, they don’t come soon enough.
The prank caller, who’s just a voice to the viewer at first, soon gets the reluctant manager to strip search the girl, examine orifices and leave her under the watch of the store’s other employees, including a boy. But when the manager’s boyfriend gets involves, the movie revs from awkward to horrific.
“About every 10 minutes, something new or different kind of changes the movie in a very fundamental way,” Zobel said.
In case you have the wrong impression, Compliance is not a “torture porn” movie, such as Hostile. Zobel’s movie wrings intestines not with blood, but by showing how seemingly normal people – the manager may well seem an acquaintance of your mother or a former teacher or boss – lack the will to follow their guts and defy (God forbid!) who might be a cop or a district manager.
When I asked Zobel how he describes his movie to distant relatives, he was quick to say it’s not for everyone.
“It’s kind of an intense movie,” he said. “I don’t think everybody in the world needs to see this movie.”
In fact, when he showed the film at Sundance, he received quite a backlash from audiences. Some said he made a film that exploitative of women, as if he were OK with what happened to the girl in the others. Others, however, just seemed to take offense that something like this could happen at all.
“The bigger reaction was just … a critique of the movie that says: I would never do that. It’s just unbelievable. I would just never do that,” he said. “And when I first read the story, I thought that until I had to analyze my own reaction and say: You know, isn’t that a snoody way to be? Isn’t that somewhat condescending to assume I’m better than all these other people?”
Beware. Zobel also said his relationship with fast food joints, which he ate at often while prepping for the film, has changed.
“I sort of quit going to them,” he said.
You’ve been warned.
Compliance is playing at the Lagoon Cinema. It stars Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, and Philip Ettinger, among others.