Many, many news cycles ago, the national media was abuzz over a story about a restaurant manager who locked an employee in the back office and told her to strip, under orders from a man on the phone impersonating a policeman. People who remember the story will be both the best and worst audience for Craig Zobel’s Compliance. They’ll be the best because they’ll know that when a poor cashier played by Dreama Walker is coerced into doing naked jumping jacks in a stockroom—and is later subjected to even worse humiliations—that all of this actually happened, and thus isn’t as implausible as it may seem. And they’ll be the worst audience because anyone who already knows where this story is going will, well, know where it’s going. The degradation of Walker’s character starts early, then just gets worse, by degrees.
Because Zobel cautiously tried not to make an exploitation film, Compliance follows a straight, matter-of-fact path, from the moment Walker’s boss (Ann Dowd) tells her that a cop on the phone has accused her of stealing to the moment many awful hours later when Dowd realizes she’s been duped. Zobel has said he was looking to fill in the gaps between the outrageous parts of this story, to understand how ordinary people could be so gullible. But though Pat Healy gives a wonderfully oily performance as the prankster, Compliance’s even tone makes some of the more extreme moments harder to buy, even though just about every major moment comes directly from the police report. The actors behave so naturally and the material is played so straight that the leaps from “stay here a minute while we check this out” to “take off all your clothes and spread your legs” seem like more of a reach.
Still, Compliance’s cast is so terrific that they turn a slight story that takes place almost entirely in one dingy room into rich theater, with each character and place so well-defined that they linger even after the closing credits. And Zobel wields the same feel for everyday interactions and power relationships that he showed in his Great World Of Sound, capturing the petty bureaucracy and bored flirtation that dominates a shift at a minimum-wage food-service job. Best of all, Compliance has a hell of an epilogue, showing some of the aftermath of the event, and how people continue to submit to authority, certain that if they’re polite and cooperative, everything will turn out okay.