Filmmaker Craig Zobel has progressed far from his early career as co-creator of the popular Flash animated internet cartoon, Homestar Runner. After a string of less-than-successful features, he returns with Compliance, an inflammatory film based on an array of real crimes involving a series of hoax phone calls. On 70 separate occasions spanning a decade, and covering 30 states, a Corrections Corporation employee named David Stewart made prank phone calls to numerous fast food restaurants and other chains pretending to be a police detective. In each case, Stewart coerced employees of those businesses to conduct illegal strip searches or perform other bizarre acts on fellow employees on behalf of fabricated investigations he claimed to be conducting. Compliance, although a fictional account, is based on these crimes, and in particular, the specific details of an incident at a Mount Washington, Kentucky McDonald’s that lead to the arrest of several employees.
In the film, Zobel details the events that culminated in a sexual assault of a young female employee by the fiancé of her shift manager. Zobel’s depiction of the events unfolds with a pulsing menace expected of the sensational material, but thankfully leaves room for commendable character development. In fact, the most intriguing element of the film is not experiencing the terrible crimes, but witnessing the relationship dynamics as the story moves from the start of the shift to the shocking conclusion.
Compliance takes place during a busy weekend shift at the ChickWich, a fast food restaurant in a non-descript small town. Short on staff and patience, the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), receives a phone call from someone calling himself Detective Daniels. He enlists Sandra to detain a young female employee named Becky (Dreama Walker), accused of stealing money from a customer’s purse. Daniels is allegedly caught in a larger investigation, and can’t come in himself, so Becky is held in a storage area at the back of the restaurant under the guarded supervision of Sandra and other coworkers. As Daniels gives increasingly invasive and disturbing commands, the story unfolds as an exploration of manipulation, control, and abuse in the environment of average low wage earners.
Zobel is careful not to demonize his characters. He also refrains from glossing over the details you might find in typical headline-grabbing journalism. He wisely spends time introducing the viewer to principal characters, and we witness conversations spread out amongst them. Sandra’s supervision skills are tested right off the bat when a delivery person questions her decision-making as part of a fiasco with spoiled food. She also overhears a conversation between two employees as they make fun of her for being out-of-touch with current slang and technology. Her vulnerability lays a foundation for exploring motivations for why some characters comply with Daniel’s orders, and other refuse. In an intimate way, Zobel’s technique gives us the ability to experience authority in its many forms, and offers insights into the complex reasons why some choose to abuse the authority given them. The viewer is given a fly-on-the-wall look at the complex reasons why people make questionable and often terrible decisions under stressful conditions.
Zobel isn’t afraid to make the viewer as uncomfortable as Becky, placing us right in the cold room alongside her as she’s robbed of dignity and safety. His camera plays the part of participant-observer, thereby making the viewer complicit in the event. In some instances, the camera lingers on Becky’s body as she’s stripped and searched. Other times, we see the camera peeking around a metal shelf or around the corner, as if curious about what’s transpiring, but too timid to do or say anything. Zobel keeps the most disturbing acts behind closed doors, shifting focus on the people working diligently to serve customers, and oblivious of what’s going on in the back. Our only clue is in the aftermath, the glazed look and body language of a violated Becky, or the panicked exit of Van (Bill Camp), Sandra’s fiancé who took things way over the edge while she was under his watch.
As the story progresses, Becky becomes less a person and more an object. Since this is essentially what happened to her real life counterpart, it’s an unavoidable transition. To Sandra, Becky is a source of jealousy and resentment. To others, she is clearly an object of lust. Becky becomes the focal point of every type of attitude, prejudice, and desire harbored by a diverse group of people. Zobel conveys these attitudes by having his actors utilize subtle eye movement, body language, and other nuances to signify disdain or guilty infatuation. Detective Daniel’s instructions allow them to indulge in behaviors that may exist only subconsciously, but come to a head when they are given permission to act freely upon them. Conversely, other employees refuse to participate, or at least voice concern, based upon friendship with Becky and a grounded sense of ethics. The message of the film becomes not questioning authority, but more deeply, what would happen if that authority gave you permission to act upon your darkest fantasies.
One might criticize the film’s dips into ludicrousness as Detective Daniels gives increasingly bizarre commands to have Becky “do jumping jacks” or be “spanked” during the course of her confinement. These scenes, however, are frighteningly based on fact. Although it can be pointed out that Zobel need not recreate every lurid detail, it’s a risk he was obviously willing to take. In doing so, he avoids diluting the portrayal of alarming behavior that inspired the film.
Many filmgoers will no doubt leave the theater criticizing the actions of the guilty parties, and not without good reason. Their perspective on the outside looking in allows breathing room to consider all angles, gaps where common sense or decency might be forgotten under duress of the moment. Sandra believes she is “doing the right thing” throughout the ordeal, and even in hindsight (a prologue where she is interviewed for a television show), doesn’t seem convinced she’d do things differently. In the end, Zobel leaves profound questions dangling for us to consider. He’s careful to keep things balanced, especially in his handling of the characters as humans, and not as sensational news subjects to be judged dismissively.
By Chris Hallock