The scene: a busy fast-food restaurant in Anywhere, USA. The crisis: Sandra (Ann Dowd), a stressed-out middle-aged manager, receives a phone call from someone (Pat Healy) who identifies himself as a police officer. This disembodied voice of the law asks the frazzled manager to conduct an interrogation of Becky (Dreama Walker), an employee accused of stealing money from a customer. We know from the start that the call is a sick prank — it’s also based on a true story, says writer-director Craig Zobel — but Sandra doesn’t. After all, why should she, a good citizen, question authority? Would you?
With a slow, relentless buildup focused on sexual humiliation, Compliance intensifies the “requests” put on Sandra, and eventually other employees, to behave immorally in the name of cooperation. And the viewer too is complicit in the exploitation, awash in mixed emotions of titillation, shame, and outrage as we’re invited to ogle a pretty young woman who is powerless and (literally) naked for much of the ordeal. (Dowd and Walker are terrific.) Zobel shoots his queasy little psych test with I’m-just-the-messenger documentary neutrality, challenging as he goes: Do you want to look away now? How about now? Will you walk out? Some did when Compliance screened this year at Sundance, while others exploded with anger or excitement. But at least everyone was talking about it, which is surely what the filmmaker has in mind as he measures the short steps between compliance and complicity. A-