Much like this year’s most beguiling documentary, The Imposter, Compliance is a film so incredulous that it would be laughed out of cinemas the world over were it not so indisputably rooted in fact, based on an actual incident that took place at a McDonald’s in 2004.
Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the fastidious manager of a fast food chain, and when she receives a call from a police officer, informing her of an employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), who has reportedly been stealing from customers, she treats it with the utmost seriousness. Becky is taken to a back room, while Sandra remains on the phone, as the “cop” begins to work his way through a list of increasingly bizarre and disconcerting orders, to which Sandra, an authoritarian who is ever-faithful in authority and hierarchy, complies.
Though one can go online and see the grimmer extent to which the real incident delved, it’s best going into Compliance cold, for this is a provocative and infuriating film that has sharply divided audiences since its inaugural bow at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A chief complaint has been that Becky is simply not believable or relatable as a character, because any reasonable person would simply have walked away from what was asked of her, but such craven dismissal entirely disregards the situational psychology, that she’s a young girl, to which the stone wall of authority seems definite.
More alarming is the adherence of Sandra, a middle-aged woman who has had a chance to experience life, still gullible – or fearful, depending on your point of view – enough to follow through with the caller’s dark line of demands. Dowd’s portrayal is carefully constructed to avoid the caricature of a Mike Judge film, instead subtly imbuing her character with a sad sense of desperation, alongside that hilariously corporate mindset.
Writer-director Craig Zobel unflinchingly captures the more unsettling results of this set-up while skirting around the temptation to exploit. Still, it’s worth drawing attention to the bravery of Walker’s fearless performance, a fine debut which encapsulates the elements of her character that are at once maddening and sympathetic. On a broader level, Zobel captures the banality of drone work with a grimy vigour; lingering shots of dirty deep-fat fryers and greasy burger grills only make us feel even more uneasy as the story progresses.
Without a single bullet in sight, Craig Zobel has crafted an ingenious, dizzying conversation piece of a thriller.
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