In taut, gripping and deeply disturbing fashion, writer-director Craig Zobel measures the depths to which rational individuals will sink to obey a self-anointed authority figure in “Compliance.” Based on a series of real-life prank calls reported at fast-food restaurants nationwide, this stealth psychological horror film is at once tough to turn away from and, by design, extremely difficult to watch as it grimly assesses the human capacity for sheeplike naivete under duress. Received at its Sundance premiere with a smattering of outraged boos, it’s a surefire conversation-starter that, with smart handling, could prove a boon to a daring distrib.
If nothing else, the accusations of sexual exploitation lobbed by a few hostile members of the film’s world-premiere audience serve as a testament to just how effectively “Compliance” gets under the viewer’s skin. Yet Zobel, who previously directed 2007’s “Great World of Sound,” is no irresponsible provocateur. From its expert performances and carefully researched material to its dead-on evocation of life behind the counter at an average Middle American burger joint, this is intelligent low-budget filmmaking that handles its risky subject matter with taste and discipline.
Drawn primarily from the records of an April 2004 incident that occurred at a McDonald’s in Mt. Washington, Ky., the film takes place almost entirely over the course of a busy Friday at ChickWich, a suburban Ohio fast-food stop, where middle-aged store supervisor Sandra (Ann Dowd) kicks off the day by giving her staff a stern pep talk. An employee’s negligence has left them with a major shortage of bacon and pickles, and with a plain-clothes inspector likely to stop by that evening, Sandra wants all of them on their game.
These early scenes, paying as much attention to fast-food logistics as to professional dynamics, prove absorbing in their own right, even as they establish a foundation of authenticity for what happens next. Sandra receives a phone call from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, “Great World of Sound”), who informs her that Becky (Dreama Walker), the pert, attractive young blonde working the register, stands accused of having robbed a customer’s purse that morning.
Cajoling Sandra with a mixture of firm authority and unctuous flattery, Daniels gets her to question Becky, occasionally getting her on the phone and badgering her directly. When the girl repeatedly denies the charge, Daniels orders Sandra to take her into a back room and strip-search her, or else risk having Becky dragged down to the police station.
What happens next — and unfortunately, there is much more to come — amounts to a chilling demonstration of the predatory power a disembodied voice can wield. Followers of Stanley Milgram’s disquieting 1960s behavioral studies using peer-administered electroshock will recognize a kindred scenario here: The initial intrigue generated by Daniels’ allegations gives way to nervously choked-back laughter and eventually stunned silence as the direction of events becomes hideously clear to the viewer, if not to the unwitting participants onscreen. Zobel lets scenes play out in near-unbearable real time, diagramming the characters’ relationships and conversations so intricately that the slow, torturous process of a young woman’s degradation remains just on this side of plausibility.
It all requires a highly sensitive balancing act on the part of the writer-director, actors and crew, and one question that lingers throughout is how far not just the characters but also the filmmakers will go. While the matter of Walker’s lengthy physical exposure has already riled some viewers, it’s handled in the least prurient manner possible, remaining well within R-rated boundaries, and done with an eye toward skillfully maximizing audience discomfort and empathy. Indeed, the film’s most shocking and credulity-straining turn would arguably have been even more nauseatingly persuasive were it not for Zobel’s basic sense of discretion.
First among equals in the cast is Dowd, who ensures that Sandra’s misguided reactions to Daniels’ increasingly perverse requests never ring less than true. In this outwardly competent but fatally suggestible, finally pathetic woman, we see the point at which compliance becomes outright complicity. Some may well object to the implications or flatter themselves that they would have recognized a sexual predator and drawn the line, even as a title card, announcing that more than 70 similar cases were reported in 30 states, provides alarming evidence to the contrary.
Tech credits are outstanding. Adam Stone’s widescreen lensing makes expert use of the pic’s sparse locations, while Heather McIntosh’s surging orchestral score imbues the banal horror of the proceedings with a genuinely tragic dimension. Jane Rizzo’s deft editing uses extreme closeup inserts — charred fries, boiling oil — to not only anchor a sense of place, but also to suggest the everyday rot underlying a story most would prefer to consider beyond the realm of possibility.