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Sundance 2012: Screaming, Anger at Tension-Filled 'Compliance' Premiere

The drama about an alleged theft in a fast food eatery debuted at the Library Center Theatre on Saturday morning; sparks flew at a Q&A following the screening.

From L-R: Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker in "Compliance"

Director Craig Zobel's highly provocative Compliance generated a passionate, at times combative reaction in its Sundance debut on Saturday.

The chilling film, which is based on true events, explores how people respond to authority. In the movie, which was also written by Zobel, a man impersonating a police officer calls the manager of a fast food restaurant and convinces her that an employee has stolen money from a customer. The worker, Becky (played by Dreama Walker), is detained for hours by her boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd), and ultimately is forced to perform a sex act.

The film, which screened to a full Library Center Theatre as part of the festival's Next section, drew nervous laughter and groans from the audience as characters continue to comply with the police impersonator.

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Moments after the film finished screening, a woman in the audience shouted: "Sundance, you can do better!" saying that during a year with so many of the festival's films featuring strong female characters, "This is not the year to make violence against women entertaining."

The woman's comments were met with a smattering of applause before many audience members booed her and applauded Zobel and the cast, who were assembling on stage. Zobel tried to lighten the mood, opening the Q&A by telling everyone that "this is usually the part of the screening where I offer everyone a stiff drink."

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When Walker attempted to talk about her role and performance, which required her to be at least partially nude for a large portion of the film, a man in the audience yelled: "Your body is pretty appealing," leaving Walker visibly shaken as a few other audiences members joined in with catcalls directed toward the cast and director.

Another actor in the film, Ashlie Atkinson (who plays a worker at the fast food restaurant), came to the defense of Walker and Zobel. 

"My immediate reaction upon seing the film is that a girl as cute as Dreama feels so robbed of any agency and thereby any effort at beauty. If you can see beauty and find it appealing when all of her agency and her power is taken from her, then I don't know what to say to you," Atkinson said, drawing a large round of applause from the crowd.

Atkinson noted that the most serious sexual assault that is perpetrated against Walker's character is not directly shown on screen. Her comments appeared to diffuse some of the tension in the 446-seat theater, and the actors and Zobel answered more conventional questions about the making of Compliance.

Zobel, who directed 2007 Sundance film Great World of Sound, reminded the audience that the film is based on true events: In 2004, a McDonald's in Mt. Washington, Kentucky, experienced a similar incident when a man who identified himself as a police officer telephoned the eatery and led employees down a path that ended in sexual assault. More than 70 such phone calls occurred across the country over a nearly 10-year period. In 2006, a man named David Stewart was acquited of all charges brought against him by investigators.

"It seemed implausibe to me that this would be possible," said Zobel, noting that he learned of the incidents while reading about the famed 1961 Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures. "I don't like to say people are stupid, so the film for me was retroactively saying, 'What part of human nature lets this happen?'"

Cinetic is handling sales of the film; upcoming screenings of Compliance include a Saturday night showing at the Tower Theatre (in Salt Lake City) and on Monday night at the Prospector Square Theatre.

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller