TEASER: Based on a true story, Compliance wonders how far we will go when the voice of authority comes calling.

If the acting in Craig Zobel’s Compliance were as powerful as the premise, it would be unwatchable. Even so, this is one of those rare painful-to-watch movies that are worth it. Compliance was the most anger-inciting offering at Sundance this year. I’m trying to be careful not talking about the plot too much, but the true-life story was notorious.

Compliance is a fairly accurate account of what happened in the suburbs of Louisville, Ky., in 2004, an incident that also inspired a short film called Plainview, which played Cinequest in 2008, and an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

Without knowing the background, the naiveté of the characters is hard to credit. I think that’s because the actors Zobel cast are very good at looking and talking like ordinary Midwestern people. They’re seasoned character actors, but they don’t communicate why the people they’re playing collapsed inside.

This is likely a correct way to approach the story. As the incisive title suggests, nearly every person in this film has no will of his or her own. Dreama Walker plays the victim, Becky, and she may have the role of a lifetime here. She has to be an unnuanced and ordinary girl with big eyes and an overbite who never suspects she’s being manipulated. Becky is passive right down to her sentences: “I just can’t be not having a job now.”

The action is set in Ohio during the season of slush. Cinematographer Adam Stone catches not just the ordinariness of American Ordinary but also the squalid side: the parking lots and the litter, a Space Shuttle mural on a wall. The action is set at a typically stressed fast-food chicken restaurant.

The place is understaffed, because people are calling in sick: “Aaron has that thing that’s going around.” Everyone fears the corporate office and the “secret shoppers” spying on them.

The staff is just getting through the shift when a man identifying himself as a police officer (Pat Healy) phones in. A customer has complained that a cashier fitting Becky’s description has stolen some money from her purse. The officer could come in and arrest Becky on the spot. It might go easier on the girl if the manager could just search Becky for the money. And when the money isn’t in her pockets, the “policeman” suggests that perhaps it’s concealed in her clothes.

During the length of the six-hour or so ordeal that follows, various members take orders from this so-called officer via the phone. Ultimately, the manager (Ann Dowd) phones her Joe Sixpack fiance, Van (Bill Camp, in a part you’d love to see J.K. Simmons do), and asks him to come in and perform some unpaid guard duty.

Again, this true-life story of credulousness strains credulity. You can’t follow the characters to the end of the line, but you can believe the direction they’re headed in, especially if you ever worked in the semimilitary conditions in a fast-food joint.

The movie underscores our own native urge to discipline and punish, which is unnoticed among the people who put 50 Shades of Grey on the bestseller list. Zobel does a worthy job of taking the erotic out of this movie by concealing Walker from the camera during the worst of what happens. Zobel doesn’t wrap the story up for you. In a way, the movie ends with the beginning of the investigation, since the question of how this could have happened remains open.

This brave and divisive indie movie offers us a shaming question: Why is it that we do what we’re told in the Land of the Free? I don’t think Compliance is an exploitive or a manipulative movie. I’ve got a blind spot for rape-revenge movies. I couldn’t tell a good one from a bad one, because I can’t bear any of them. But there’s something that screams inside you when you’re watching Compliance, to get on that phone and shout back at this voice of authority with its need to probe, to know.


R; 90 mins.
Opens Friday, August 31, Camera 3, San Jose

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