Written and Directed by: Craig Zobel
Starring: Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Ann Dowd, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, and Ashlie Atkinson
When someone in a position of power tells you to do something, you do it. Right? Even if it goes against our beliefs, most of us wouldn’t think to question it. According to the Milgram experiment – a psychological study conducted in 1963 which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience – 65% of people blindly went along with it. Based on true events, writer-director Craig Zobel’s COMPLIANCE plays around with this notion of implicit trust and obedience like a cat plays with a ball of yarn. It’s an intense, psychologically taut thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat and talking back to the screen.
What begins as a typical busy day at the fictional fast-food restaurant ChickWich ends in an appalling nightmare of epic proportions. Stressed-out branch manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is awaiting the arrival of franchise control and she’s started her day off with a crisis: They are out of pickles and the bacon supply is dwindling. Little does she know this won’t be the worst crisis she faces today. She’s instructed her employees – who include counter clerk Becky (Dreama Walker), employee Kevin (Philip Ettinger) and assistant manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) – that everyone is to be on their best behavior and to do things “by the book.” By this defining and subtle character trait, she will make for an easy mark. Soon after opening, Sandra receives a phone call from a Police Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) saying that Becky has stolen money out of a customer’s purse. The authoritative officer tells Sandra to pull Becky off the floor and interrogate her. Convinced she’s just doing what’s right, and not trusting her employee (could there be residual hatred there, perhaps?), Sandra follows the officer’s step-by-step instructions – no matter how invasive (and ludicrous) they become.
What makes COMPLIANCE a phenomenal film is its ability to take a fairly simple subject and turn it into a complex, haunting, and – best of all – relatable nightmare. The story goes beyond what you may have read about in the papers and spins it into a layered, riveting, and compelling masterpiece. How many of us are so distracted that we too wouldn’t go along with this? What happens when we are accused of a crime we didn’t commit? What’s your fight or flight response? Zobel’s sterile, matter-of-fact direction helps build tension at a steady pace. He and editor Jane Rizzo brilliantly interweave and juxtapose the stresses of what’s going on in the break room with the relative calm of the restaurant floor (which if you think about it, are usually the opposite in real life). Shots linger the perfect amount of time to catch all of the actors’ nuances and let the impact of the scene sink in. Pivotal moments are allowed breathing room and never overstay their welcome.
Not only are the direction and editing top-notch, the cast is amazing. Walker turns a refined and understated performance. You can see the moment when Becky loses her innocence (all done in a blessedly not over-the-top manner). Even though he’s been cast as the stereotypical villain, Healy with his soft, soothing voice is anything but. He’s played as just a normal, friendly guy who’s unaffected by the mental anguish he’s inflicting. It’s terrifying to think that this guy can be “your average Joe.” But who really steals the show is Dowd. Even when she doing the most abhorrent things, audiences will still identify with her struggles. You may be disappointed in her willingness to blindly follow orders, but you are constantly transfixed on her reactions.
There’s precious little to complain about here which makes this a must see cinematic experience.
COMPLIANCE opens in New York on August 17 and at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles on August 24.