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PARK CITY — Among feature films, the phrase “Based on True Events” often brings to mind sentimental dramas or lurid tales ripped from the headlines. So outlandish and disturbing is the backstory to Craig Zobel’s sophomore feature “Compliance,” however, that it’s easy to wish that it were entirely fictional.
This is dark, edgy material – numerous walkouts and vocal criticism of the festival accompanied the Sundance premiere at the Library Center Theater, leaving the cast and crew defending the film during a post-screening Q&A. Yet with careful handling and the filmmakers’ passionate support, Compliance is so eerily attuned to current cultural issues that a specialized berth is not unlikely.
PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance 2012
At a local franchise of the ChickWich chain located in a snowy Ohio town, middle-aged store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) briefs her mostly young and disinterested staff on the key points of her stressful day: an employee oversight has spoiled the bacon so supplies are low and a secret shopper from headquarters could be dropping by at any time. Late as usual, cute, 19-year-old blonde Becky (Dreama Walker) gives Sandra some unwelcome attitude and proceeds to slack off when she’s not serving customers at the counter.
Sandra gets a phone call mid-shift from a male caller claiming to be police officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who explains that the cops have received a complaint that Becky stole some money from a customer’s purse earlier in the day. He insists that Sandra will need to question Becky about the theft, since he says he’s occupied with a search of Becky’s home as part of a larger investigation.
Hesitant at first, Sandra agrees to assist the officer and brings Becky into the back office, where the girl denies any involvement with the theft. With Daniels still on the phone directing the investigation, Sandra becomes his proxy, relaying his questions to Becky or handing the phone to her so he can question Becky directly. Daniels’ voice is calm, insistent and commanding, with an attitude that brooks no resistance.
Tensions escalate after Sandra’s search of Becky’s purse and pockets doesn’t turn up the missing money and Daniels directs her to strip-search her employee, saying the only alternative is for the cops to jail Becky while the investigation continues. After eliciting Becky’s compliance, Sandra agrees, calling in her assistant manager to be present while Becky strips and they search her clothes, with no result. In a chilling scene of dread and humiliation, Daniels demands that Becky strip completely naked to be certain there’s nothing hidden in her underclothes.
STORY: Sundance 2012: Screaming, Anger at Tension-Filled ‘Compliance’ Premiere
Daniels insists that Becky must remain naked, although a coworker gives her an apron to put on while he directs Sandra to put Becky’s clothes in her car and leave it unlocked so the police can collect the evidence. Sandra then insists on going back to work in the busy restaurant and Daniels directs her to have a male employee watch Becky “for security purposes.” Daniels then follows with a series of increasingly invasive search techniques and questions about Becky’s body, accompanied by reluctant cooperation on the part of several men that Sandra recruits for assistance, with appalling results.
Writer-director Zobel, whose Great World of Sound played Sundance in 2007, lifted the disturbing incident from news of a similar crime that took place at McDonald’s in 2004, incredibly one of 70 similar assaults nationwide over nearly a decade. Although there’s no dismissing the repellent acts perpetrated against Walker’s Becky character, the scenario is reminiscent of the Milgram psychological experiments of the 1960s, which demonstrated the willingness of subjects to follow the orders of authority figures, even against their own better judgment and fundamental beliefs.
VIDEO: Sundance 2012 Preview: Behind the Scenes of ‘Compliance’
Zobel rapidly establishes an oppressive atmosphere in the restaurant by exploiting the hostility between Sandra and Becky, which only escalates when the manager takes responsibility for detaining her employee. Tightly framed shots, subtle camera movements and constrained blocking build tension, underlined by Heather McIntosh’s excellent, foreboding score. While it’s debatable whether the revelation that Daniels isn’t actually a cop comes too early in the film, the ensuing scenes of him alternately establishing rapport with the people he’s speaking with or insinuating authority are chillingly realistic.
The other principal performances are equally unsettling, particularly Dowd as the unquestioning manager more focused on her career than the wellbeing of her employees. Newcomer Dreama Walker acquits herself admirably in the role of Becky, at first stridently denying the accusations against her and then gradually complying almost catatonically with Daniels’ directives. Her nude scenes are handled with relative discretion considering the level of verisimilitude necessary to convincingly execute her role, but it’s nevertheless a brave and impressively well-modulated performance.
Likely to spur discussions about workplace safety, employee rights and broader awareness of sexual predation, Compliance is also a suspenseful psychological drama for viewers prepared to tolerate its extremes.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Next
Production company: Bad Cop / Bad Cop
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCafrey
Director/screenwriter: Craig Zobel
Producers: Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Tyler Davidson, Theo Sena, Craig Zobel
Executive producers: David Gordon Green, James Belfer, Carina Alves
Director of photography: Adam Stone
Production designer: Matthew Munn
Music: Heather McIntosh
Costume designer: Karen Malecki
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 90 minutes
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