"Compliance" balances restraint with real-life horror

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Sandra (Ann Dowd) and Becky (Dreama Walker) in the office where many of “Compliance’s” most horrifying moments take place (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures).

The true events that “Compliance” is based on — a series of particularly cruel prank calls to fast-food restaurants — call to mind instances like the Stanford prison experiment, where participants were driven to indulge the darkest parts of their psyche under the guise of following orders. It would be easy to call the film outrageous if its events weren’t so well-documented. Easily, the ruthless film could have become exploitative. Thankfully, director Craig Zobel’s mature, restrained handling of the challenges inherent to the film’s difficult material makes “Compliance” a much smarter, more effective work.

“Compliance” takes place almost entirely in an Ohio fast-food restaurant. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the restaurant’s manager, is startled when she receives a call from a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy). His allegations that an employee (Dreama Walker) stole from a customer escalate quickly, first with rational requests like checking the employee’s pockets and purse and quickly devolving into much more troubling demands.

Zobel deserves endless credit for making “Compliance” as compelling and even-handed as it is. A small accumulation of details at the beginning of the film — Sandra is irritated because of food left out overnight and has trouble relating to the younger, prettier Becky (Walker) — build Sandra’s frustrations and anxiety to a point that makes her blind obedience to the fictional officer on the other end of the line believable. Zobel paces the film perfectly, holding each of his big reveals for a key moment and smartly playing its most repulsive moments as straight horror. Even so, the level of restraint Zobel wields in his construction of these scenes is admirable, and he does a great job making the audience squirm, almost as if we are equally complicit in the poor girl’s peril.

When a performance consists mostly of talking into a phone, a character can easily become half-baked or ill-defined, but Healy is the perfect combination of slimy and charming. His “Officer Daniels” is a master manipulator, and in this character the film’s writing truly shines. Daniels is endlessly capable of rationalizing what he’s asking others to do, and his voice carries just the right amount of authority without ever becoming badly insidious. Healy’s performance borders on seductive, especially in the way that Daniels slowly pushes Dowd’s Sandra further and further out of her comfort zone with equally negative and positive reinforcement.

Dowd has difficult ground to navigate here, because Sandra is equal parts victim and perpetrator. Her role is harsh, almost caustic. As Sandra’s actions grow worse, every ounce of sympathy the audience has for her trickles away until the devastating moment when Sandra learns what’s really going on. As the full weight of what she’s done hits her, the dawning horror on Sandra’s face is beautifully played by Dowd. Walker has a less interesting character but is just as fascinating to watch as she quickly loses control of her situation. It’s a quiet, horrified, tragically helpless performance, and Walker is playing an empty, devastated shell by the end of the film.

“Compliance” is by no means a film for everyone. It’s dark, relentless and when it screened at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival, the number of walkouts in the screening was considerable (and understandable). Nonetheless, it’s a smoothly presented, intelligently directed examination of the dynamics and perception of authority. “Compliance” is tautly edited, elegantly scored and a worthwhile discussion starter for those with the willpower to sit through it. 

Printed on Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 as: Director resurrects real-life horror tale