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Craig Zobel's first feature film, "Great World Of Sound," was a low-key charmer that I enjoyed enormously. It's got a great unique voice, and I don't think it easily fits any single genre description. Now, with his new drama "Compliance," Zobel's made an aggressively unpleasant film, but with intent. The film asks hard questions about basic human psychology, and it is a harrowing experience that closely follows the details of the real-life story that inspired it. I can't say I liked sitting through "Compliance," but I can say that I think it's significant, and that it cements Zobel's place as a serious filmmaker with an important voice.
"Compliance" tells the story of one horrifying day at a fast-food chicken place, where Sandra (Ann Dowd) starts out off-balance because of an overnight freezer mishap. Sandra's an older woman who has no real rapport with her young staff, no matter how hard she tries, and she's not particularly good at the business of managing people. She might be good with the daily details of running the restaurant, but she's awkward and tries way too hard when she's talking to Becky (Dreama Walker) or Kevin (Philip Ettinger) or Marti (Ashlie Atkinson).
She starts the day in a bad mood, so when she gets a call from a policeman, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) telling her that the police just witnessed Becky stealing money from the purse of one of the customers, it's enough to push her to some brusque behavior. And because Sandra is determined to do everything the police officer tells her to do, Becky goes through what can only be described as a punishing, invasive assault that lasts most of a day.
The idea that anyone would follow the orders of a disembodied voice on a phone, no matter how they identified themselves, is terrifying to me, but "Compliance" earns its awful power from the restrained way it paints its picture. I've seen the "20/20" piece that inspired the film since I saw the movie, and it shocks me how closely Zobel played it to reality. He never feels the need to turn things up for the sake of drama. Instead, he stays very close to the beat-for-beat reality of how it played out, and that seems somehow worse. I'd like to believe Zobel is exaggerating Sandra's mistake, but it does not appear to be the case.
Ann Dowd is very good in the film, as is Dreama Walker, who takes a seriously difficult and unpleasant role and manages to find the bruised dignity in Becky's responses. Of course, Sandra couldn't have done this awful thing without other people equally falling for the nonsense that "Officer Daniels" was ordering her to do, and for us to believe the movie, we have to believe that this guy could indeed get someone to believe him. Pat Healy is an inspired choice to play the part, and he never once overdoes the malice or the menace, instead choosing to play it as a far more human-scale monster, and it's a haunting performance. There's something entirely reasonable about every request he makes and his manner in dealing with everyone he calls, and it's like he's got some sort of deranged magic power.
Technically, the film maintains a cool clinical sense of remove, almost like we're watching impressively photographed surveillance footage. The score by Heather McIntosh and the editing by Jane Rizzo perfectly complement Adam Stone's cinematography, and the result is something special, something I won't be able to easily shake. "Compliance" scares me more than most horror films because this film dares to look into the flawed heart of most human beings and find them wanting, a message that offers no easy antidote.
"Compliance" will be in theaters and on VOD later this year from Magnolia.
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