Forget the patter about the Milgram experiment and "Good German syndrome" that hung around Compliance from its premiere at Sundance last year through its late-summer theatrical run. This isn't a movie of ideas in any meaningful way. Or rather, it's a movie of one fairly simple idea: the human tendency to shuck moral responsibility in the face of authority. It's day-one type stuff, but what distinguishes Zobel's film isn't the daring of its interrogations, but the neatness of the craft.
The tone is set with Sandra (Ann Dowd), a high-strung manager at a fast-food restaurant who catches flak from a beleaguered deliveryman for letting nearly $1,500 of corporate product (mostly bacon and pickles) spoil overnight. "You're fucked without bacon, I'll tell you that," he snaps, getting back into the truck. It's hard to recall the last time a tossed-of linguistic regionalism seemed so farsighted. "Fucked" perfectly apprehends both the course of Sandra's day after the stress of dwindling bacon is compounded when a "prank" caller posing as a police officer cajoles her into detaining and strip-searching a young, lithesome employee, Becky (Dreama Walker). It also apprehends the mood of Compliance—a film that, for better or worse, can be economically described as "fucked."
Compliance unfolds in a series of extended conversational power-plays between the fictional "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy) and a succession of stand-ins he tasks with undressing, guarding, and, in due course, raping Walker's delicate, flaxen-haired all-American girl. Zobel does a fine job of developing the fake cop's creepiness, peppering the repetition of key, upper-hand-establishing phrases ("It might sound a little strange, I know, but I'm an officer of the law") used to groom Sandra and the other Chick-Wich employees into abusing their co-worker, with condescending baby talk used to dehumanize Becky, while underlining the film's structural idea that, no, this is probably not an actual police officer.
Initially, this sequences play with a certain spiked, button-pushing tension worthy of canon art-house provocateurs like Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, or Kim-ki Duk. But on repeat viewing, Compliance's deck of squirmy incitements feels a bit stacked. That the initial tension between Sandra and Becky proceeds as much from the not-cop's well-oiled vocal cues as a feminine jealousy between the matronly, middle-aged Dowd and her supple charge seems believable enough. Yet as the guiding fucked-ness of Compliance deepens, its spiked caricatures of gender, race, and especially class feel downright cryptic. Zobel's employment of a half-drunk, blue-collar general contractor (Bill Camp) as the figure who most fully abuses Becky makes some sense at first, as he's engaged to Sandra, further stoking the original feminine, midlife anxiety that defines the two women's dynamic. But then using Stephen Payne's truck driver, whose blue-collar-ness is even more deeply coded, as a skeptical savior who tips everyone else off to the suspiciousness of the proceedings feels highly negotiated, as if Zobel is being extra careful to cover his ass, representation-wise.
Still, Payne's own instructive middle-American patois ("I don't think it's right to see a lady like this in the buff") reveals Compliance's most effective idea: that it's not just the absolution to a vague concept of capital-A authority that threatens to demagnetize an otherwise decent person's moral compass, but the way that loose American values like decency and folksiness can work to further obscure that authority. Zobel's ear for the Rust Belt vernacular works to establish bonds of trust between characters that muddy the essential power dynamics in play. It's a testament to the filmmaker's mechanical intelligence that, in the film's last scene, as Dowd's disgraced manager squares off against a TV news magazine host taking her to task for the abuses Becky suffered, she shiftily attempts to impede his investigation by making small talk about the humidity. Call it "Good Neighbor syndrome."
IMAGE / SOUND:
The muddy cinematography of Craig Zobel's film—all battered stainless steel and oily fast-food french fries—makes for a pretty by-the-numbers video transfer. The picture is sharp and crisp, popping in the inter-cut establishing shots of chicken strips crackling in hot oil or soda pop gurgling from a fountain dispensary. More important is the audio transfer, given how motivated by dialogue the film is. It all comes across cleanly; ditto Heather McIntosh's screechy cello score, which contributes substantially to the film's drives at seriousness.
If you like this film, and are resolved to maintain that it's about Big Things, avoid the interview with Zobel at all costs. Granted, a filmmaker (especially a young filmmaker) need not be especially dexterous with words, particularly when their craftiness as a filmmaker seems on such an even-keel. But Zobel only works to flatten any thematic weightiness into that button-bushing, provocative, fucked-ness, talking in intermittently coherent snatches about "What would you do in this situation?" and so on. Otherwise, the features here are a rote, EPK affair.
Less weighty moral inquiry than astute, well-managed provocation, Craig Zobel's Compliance effectively splits the difference between American indie art-house solemnity and direct-to-video bad-object tastelessness. Were it not for the pull-quote superlatives branding its case, the jump to home video may have allowed the film to pass as a highly confrontational, lightly intellectual video nasty.