Playing by the Rules
By Kristi Mitsuda

Dir. Craig Zobel, U.S., Magnolia Pictures

Based on a series of real-life events, Craig Zobel’s Compliance shows that the distance between a crank call and a sexual assault is perhaps not as wide as one might think. Cries of misogyny and exploitation at its Sundance premiere to the contrary, the movie isn’t interested in titillation or laughter at its representation of fast-food employees following increasingly outrageous orders given over the phone by a man impersonating a police officer; the writer-director’s aims seem pure, not prurient, and this is far from a fun affair.

As in the director’s feature debut, The Great World of Sound—which follows two well-meaning men forced by economic circumstance into enacting a sketchy scheme in which preying off mostly subpar singers shooting for the stars becomes their business—Compliance possesses a disarming sensitivity, along with a wafting sorrow at its core that seems reflective of America in microcosm. Zobel is on a mission of understanding: How could such pranks (over seventy, as the end titles tell us) have occurred at various chains across multiple states and many years? Who are the individuals on the other end of the line? What were they thinking? By focusing on one particularly grueling example—in which the filmmaker conceives of a perfect storm of people coming together in unconsciously choreographed collaboration—he tries, and triumphs to some extent, to illuminate the possible psychological underpinnings.

Compliance’s focal point is manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). We first meet her as she receives a talking to from a warehouse deliveryman for ChickWich, the fictional fast-food restaurant where the movie takes place. “It’s your job to manage this shit,” he berates her upon hearing that a last-minute delivery of bacon and pickles was necessary because someone left the refrigerator door open the night before. Her day off to a stressful start, she announces at a staff meeting that things need to be “by the book tonight,” because someone from franchise quality control may pay them a visit. During the sequence, blonde teenager Becky (Dreama Walker) exchanges unsubtle sidelong eye rolls with friend and fellow coworker Kevin (Philip Ettinger), which Sandra sees but doesn’t comment upon; she appears acutely aware that she’s something of a figure of ridicule at work, perhaps due to her square middle-agedness or micromanager style (at one point she reprimands an employee for the messiness of the condiment packets). But she clearly longs to be part of the gang; we witness her awkwardly trying to join a conversation between Becky and shift supervisor Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) as they discuss the former’s apparently active love life. Marti says to Becky, “I don’t know how you handle them all, girl,” to which Sandra jumps in, “Yeah, I can hardly handle my fiancé,” before going on to overshare (or lie in an attempt to come off as cool) that he sexts her sometimes. As she walks away, she hears the other two giggling about her: “Oh my God. Who calls it ‘sexting’”?

So when the call comes in from Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), the foundation has already been set for Sandra’s slightly overzealous cooperation. The man on the line has an official-sounding demeanor and drops the name of her regional manager before bringing up an alleged customer’s accusation that someone fitting Becky’s description stole from her purse earlier on. He suggests that if Sandra helps him, the need to bring the girl “downtown” can be avoided. With mealtime rush hour upon her, the manager submits to simple requests that snowball into a strip search. Aware of the crush of customers out front, Sandra soon thereafter puts Kevin on the line at Officer Daniels’s request that another employee be placed in charge of Becky while she takes care of business. Kevin refuses to participate—though he doesn’t otherwise intervene—so Sandra returns and commiserates with this man on the phone about the boy’s general disobedience and lack of professionalism, finding in Daniels’s appreciation for her cooperation the camaraderie and approbation she’s lacking on the job.

To the caller’s next suggestion that she bring in someone else she trusts to watch over Becky until he can get to the location, Sandra recruits fiancé Van (Bill Camp). Van was introduced in brief earlier calling to ask Sandra for permission to visit a friend’s house for some beers—though he’s shown to be already arrived and partaking—to which she says that of course he can, before quickly adding that he shouldn’t get too drunk. From the outset we know that Van is used to being told what to do. Between the crank-caller’s commands and Sandra periodically checking in and scolding him for his reluctance, it isn’t long before he caves; initially he pronounces, “I don’t get it,” repeatedly in response to Daniels’s directions before finally asking Sandra if he should go ahead and follow the orders, to which he receives her exasperated assent. At this, Van proceeds.

Only the pivotal character of Becky remains, ironically, underexamined. As written and acted, the character doesn’t read as legibly as the others in the trifecta. Walker manifests no authentic sense of adolescent self-consciousness or insecurity; it’s up to the audience to extrapolate as much from her slight hesitations. While young, she seems too aware of her desirability—per the film’s early conversation between her and Marti—to be so naïve as to go blindly along with this scenario; her refrain throughout the proceedings is “This is so stupid.” When Sandra walks in on her and Van in the back room at one point—as they follow Daniels’s orders—she hastily covers up her naked body as if she knows she’s been caught doing something wrong. And although the movie in part purportedly aspires to explore, like Stanley Milgram’s psychology experiments of the sixties, obedience to perceived if questionable authority, the film text itself doesn’t directly tease out these strands in any significant way so that Becky’s cooperation remains largely incomprehensible.

Then, too, Walker is such the picture of pert—perhaps too prettily perfect a specimen to fit realistically into this otherwise everyday setting with its regular burger-eating folk and alternately drab and too-loud fast food colors—that the naturalism of the film is somewhat compromised; this is the one aspect that might give Zobel’s detractors a certain amount of credence. As well, though outside the scope of the text, the promotional posters for Compliance featuring an ambiguously open-mouthed and suggestive Becky, demonstrating at least an acknowledgement of the possibly arousing factor involved here: canny or crude depending on your take.

If Compliance seeks to sift through the events to help us make sense of how they could take place and we leave still rather incredulous, then on the whole it must be taken as a failure. And too little seems left to fill in the gaps; at times the movie plays so close to fly-on-the-wall reportage it occasionally falls flat, lacking the level of tension necessary to sustain suspense (even if you don’t start off with an awareness of the exact end point, the slow build-up leaves little doubt that it’s somewhere inappropriately sexual) or detail to color in a description as darkly complex as the director desires. But Zobel manages to walk the fine line of extending empathy to his characters while not excusing them of personal culpability, an exercise deserving of thoughtful rather than kneejerk consideration.