‘Compliance’ compelling but too creepy for comfort

  • Wed Aug 22nd, 2012 6:42pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

A textbook example of indie-movie provocation, “Compliance” is guaranteed to raise eyebrows, hackles and various degrees of outrage. In fact, it is designed to do that.

The movie is based on a bizarre wave of real-life incidents, in which someone called fast-food restaurants pretending to be a police officer and instructed the manager to hold an employee in custody for some alleged infraction.

Told the police were “on their way,” the manager would be ordered to perform an increasingly intrusive and offensive series of interrogations and searches on the employee, culminating — in at least one instance — in something truly shocking.

The movie takes place in a fictional “Chikwich” restaurant, where the prank caller holds sway for a long, nightmarish day. The manager is Sandra, whose frumpy middle-age sets her apart from the younger employees of the place.

She is authoritatively embodied by Ann Dowd, a longtime character actress who does an award-worthy job here. Singled out for attention is a young cashier, Becky (Dreama Walker), a typical teenager killing a few months at the minimum wage.

I’m not entirely sure why writer-director Craig Zobel suggests a degree of resentment between Sandra and Becky in the early scenes, because there doesn’t seem to be any underlying motivation for what transpires thereafter.

As we watch with increasing discomfort, Becky is held “in custody” in the back room, forced to submit to a strip search, and kept in place for even more harrowing degradations to come.

The lesson we’re set up for here is how willing people are to take orders from authority, even when that authority is merely an unconfirmed voice on a telephone.

A great deal of what happens in “Compliance” might be hard to accept if you didn’t know (as an opening title informs us) that these things have actually happened.

Zobel’s goal is clearly to have us question our own complacent “Well, I wouldn’t have gone that far” responses to this movie, especially as the material assumes incredible proportions.

As a conversation piece, the movie’s a success. I’m bothered by its methods, however.

Drawn into the utter creepiness of the ruse, but given information that makes us superior to the hapless characters, we watch this thing unfold as an act of exploitation, not a sober examination of an issue.

I know Zobel wants us to feel implicated, but the whole thing feels pretty unclean, whatever its intentions were.

Compelling? Yes. Creepy? That too, in equal measure.

“Compliance” ½

A controversial indie, based on an incredible series of criminal pranks. A caller, claiming to be police, instructs a fast-food manager (Ann Dowd, excellent) to take an employee into custody and carry out an increasingly disturbing series of violations of her. The movie’s a conversation piece, for sure, but it flirts with its own level of exploitation.

Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter.

Showing: Varsity.