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Entries in Compliance [2012] (1)

Tuesday
Sep042012

Compliance (2012)

Fascist Food

Even if you make it through writer/director Craig Zobel's mind-bending disasterpiece, Compliance, you won't shake it off easily. One third is a hands-over-the-mouth, avert-your-eyes experiment in discomfort. Another third is a rich character study from an auteur who teeters on the edge of brilliance. The last third is an embarrassing plunge off that edge, which taints everything of quality in the film. 

The ironic thing about thirds in the movies is that they're rarely evenly distributed, as is the case here. For every nerve-smashing, emotionally honest scene, there's another whose premise is so ridiculous that the audience must work over-time just to get in the mood Zobel tries to set.

The film stars Ann Dowd as Sandra, the manager at an Ohio fast-food restaurant called Chickwich. She's frumpy, tired, and kind of pathetic--a middle-aged workaholic who woke up one morning and forgot that her teenage self once had dreams. She works with kids twenty-plus years her junior, whose level of responsibility might be measured on a scale where "Competent" is the highest possible bar. One morning, Sandra gets a call from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), a cop who informs her that one of her employees has just stolen some money from a customer's purse.

Daniels tells Sandra to take Becky (Dreama Walker) off of counter duty and bring her to the back office for questioning. The rest of Compliance takes place here, as Sandra and a rotating cast of employees (plus her would-be fiancé) takes turns keeping an eye on Becky and performing various searches--per Officer Daniels' over-the-phone instructions.

Two problems: First, these instructions become increasingly abrasive and, eventually, sexual. Second, Officer Daniels isn't a cop. He's a twisted prank caller from another state who happens to be very good at manipulating people.

If you're of the mindset that any unseen "police officer" accusing you or an employee of theft had better have a badge number handy, welcome to Compliance's greatest shortcoming. Though Daniels has an answer for each of Sandra's questions, and is able to trick Becky into believing he has more on her than he does, my suspension of disbelief nearly buckled under the weight of all the heavy lifting Zobel asked me to do.

For starters, Daniels tells Sandra that he has both the accuser and Sandra's regional manager on the other line. Consider the fact that the film takes place over the course of a day. We see Sandra open the store; her staff is in the middle of dinner rush by the time this nightmare ends. Did no one think to ask if it made sense that a Chickwich boss would hang on the phone for eight to twelve hours?

Also, Officer Daniels--no conference calling? Really?

Next: it's established early on that Becky's a spunky, independent girl with an attitude problem. We get a sense of her economic woes, sure, but something tells me that the strip search in front of her boss and shift manager is about as far as a girl like her would actually go. Becky strikes me as the kind of person who would have walked out waaaay before cavity searches, nude jumping jacks or blowjobs entered the picture.

I get what Zobel is going for. His fast-food take on the Milgram experiment is an exaggerated look at the authoritarian world in which average Americans toil every day. We're reminded by gigantic pre-title letters that Compliance is "Inspired by a true Story" (gag), and I'd wager Zobel could talk for hours about our country's fearful obeisance to any vague body of power--from airport X-ray attendants to the dopey boss at work. Hell, I'd be happy to listen.

But for such metaphors to work, they must contain a kernel of believability. Otherwise, they're just ham-fisted morality tales whose importance can be laughed off by those who need its lessons most. This story is based on the cartoonish generalization that dumb teens and soft-skulled automatons will go along with anything to get along. It's not until an ex-hippie-looking maintenance man (Stephen Payne) reminds everyone of the Civil Rights era that they come to their senses.

Compliance is as cloyingly obvious as the neat bow of an ending Zobel tacks onto it* and the After School Special-style stats before the end credits about how this story--or, more precisely, drastically un-embellished versions of this story--has played out all over America in recent years.

Now that I've made it sound like I completely hated the movie, let me give you four reasons to see it: Walker, Healy, and Dowd, and Bill Camp. I almost listed Zobel's dialogue as reason number five--his ear for casual conversation is uncanny--but I hesitate to give him too much credit in the writing department since he botched the story so badly. This is a small film with big performances, and the actors sell their parts admirably.

Walker goes from independent spirit to caged animal in ninety minutes of compromise, self-doubt and debasement. It's a far cry from her straight-woman role on ABC's Don't Trust the B--in in Apartment 23, and I kept wanting to offer her character a trauma blanket.

Dowd and Camp (who plays Sandra's boyfriend, Van) are like characters out of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot: essentially decent, small-town folk who fall victim to psychic vampires. It's a testament to Zobel's direction that Camp begins the film as a bright, jolly guy and ends it with a simpering, gray look that's simply haunting. Dowd is the doormat who thinks she's a door; her alternating confidence and submission give Compliance its dark fire.

Which brings me to Healy. Ah, Pat Healy: my new hero. I barely recognized him from his role in Ti West's The Innkeepers: Officer Daniels is the wicked, near-genius opposite of Luke. As we learn more about the caller's life and the obscene little things that bring him joy, Healy emerges as a malevolent force of sheer banality. He smirks while spreading mustard on a sandwich, as people on the other end of the line order Becky to grab her ankles for the umpteenth time. He plays an extremely unlikable villain with the giddiness and mood swings of a twelve-year-old boy; sadly, the visuals of this juvenile sadism--fairly or unfairly--also undercuts the credibility of his victims' participation.

In the end, Compliance is a great performance piece that falls short as great art. It reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's far superior Bubble, a film that says similar things about the minimum-wage workforce and also involves a crime. That story was spun from whole cloth, yet managed to feel almost like a documentary thanks to great acting and a tight script, which didn't assign itself grandiose themes. I got caught up in parts of Zobel's movie, but I don't buy it--no matter how much he insists that I do.

*"Officer Daniels" gets his due--SPOILER.