Director Craig Zobel at the premiere of Compliance. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.
Compliance may be the most difficult film to watch in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival program. No one gets their head gashed in during the movie; no one even peacefully dies. But if you don’t squirm at least once during Compliance, you might actually be a robot.
Compliance, which is screening in the NEXT category, is difficult to watch. It is also unforgettable. Based on actual events, as director Craig Zobel takes pains to indicate in the movie’s opening credits, Compliance is the raw, combustible story of what happens when Sandra (Ann Dowd), a manager at an American fast food restaurant, gets a call from a policeman, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), telling her that one of her teenaged employees, Becky (Dreama Walker), is suspected of being a thief. He has details that reveal he knows exactly who Becky is. However, he says police headquarters is short-staffed and he can’t make it to the restaurant to interrogate Becky himself. He asks Sandra to do it, and despite the fact that the restaurant is short on both bacon, an employee lost $1,400 of food because someone left the freezer open, and a quality control inspector is rumored to be secretly stopping by, Sandra says she’ll interrogate Becky. Sandra hasn’t had problems with Becky beyond her snarly attitude; but because it’s a policeman calling, she does as she’s asked. Then things get much worse, for Becky and everyone else.
Were it not so carefully calibrated and smartly observed – if it didn’t feel so sadly, humanely real – Compliance would feel like the cheap retelling of a sketchy urban legend. Zobel first got the idea for Compliance after he read about the famous 1961 Milgram experiment, which revealed the lengths to which people will go to obey orders, even if they know they are hurting others in the effort to obey. Zobel wrote Compliance after learning about a hoax that took place in Kentucky in 2004. In that case, a man pretending over the phone to be a local police officer had falsely accused an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee. The man had also produced similar pranks by calling 68 restaurants in 32 states, causing untold damage not only to those falsely accused by the caller but to the managers and other employees who went along with the caller’s increasingly shocking demands. The caller persuaded people to do intensely private things to and with one another, all in front of surveillance cameras, by the way.
The fact that rational people can be persuaded to do awful things to one another because they believe they are obeying authority is something that Zobel is still trying to understand, even after his 2007 Festival hit The Great World of Sound, which also covers scams (this time by wannabe musicians hooked into giving money to unscrupulous music “producers”). He says the article describing the Kentucky hoax was “impossible to believe, basically,” so much so that he didn’t think the story could become a credible film. But then he started reading more articles about the series of phone call hoaxes. That’s when he “put words in people’s mouths that would have made me stay on the line” with the policeman and eventually crafted the Compliance script. The actual case was so baffling to him that he “started writing it down to see if I could have it make sense.” That’s how Zobel created a screenplay that both indicts the characters who went along with the caller and invests them with humanity, understanding their rural, trusting, blue-collar backgrounds and the imperative in corporate fast-food culture that demands that employees obey authority.
Compliance doesn’t offer easy answers. Shot mostly in sequence with a crop of stage-trained actors able to subtly convey psychological degradation, Compliance is set in several different back rooms of a sterile fast-food restaurant. It is a compelling film to watch unspool, despite the restaurant’s icky brown and mustard tones and the creeping conviction that as events unfold, you are observing something that will become darker and more difficult to dislodge from your brain. Zobel, who once had a job as a telemarketer, says he has some “major sympathy” for Sandra, the manager who initially obeys the policeman and lets the situation unfurl. “I can see a situation where you’ve done so many things that you can’t go backward,” Zobel acknowledges. But “ultimately, I do have a bit of an indictment for her – it is not a good thing to do,” he says. “I found myself … being fascinated with the small decisions we make that become very big and bad.”
‘Compliance’ was a recipient of a 2011 Cinereach Project at Sundance Institute Grant.