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(2012) *** R
90 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Craig Zobel. Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy.


Fair warning: Compliance will make you squirm. This psychodrama of ill-advised behavior may well leave you feeling dirty as well, for what you've watched helplessly and perhaps for what you've countenanced as an American citizen.
Set in American heartland (namely Ohio), as well as American heart-attack land (namely a takeout joint named ChickWich), Compliance uses those trappings to remind us of our national character. Even as writer-director Craig Zobel tells a seemingly specific story inspired by true-crime events, the film's reach seems to broaden as it goes, and by the end, we're sickened by the confirmation of our fears.

On the face of it, Compliance dramatizes an incident of sanctioned abuse. It's a hectic night at ChickWich, made worse when manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets a call from a man (Pat Healy) claiming to be a police officer named Daniels. Daniels explains that a theft has been reported by a customer, and as the conversation progresses, he quickly pins the crime on a low-level employee Sandra agreeably identifies as Becky (Dreama Walker).

Claiming to be tied up with a search of Becky's home, Daniels enlists Sandra to serve as an unofficial deputy at the scene of the crime: she will have to search Becky, he explains, and hold her until he can arrive. Since the young and pretty Becky earlier slighted the middle-aged, dowdy Sandra, the older woman harbors personal feelings of jealousy and resentment that she only too willingly channels—under the guise of professional duty—into her suddenly heightened position of power.

Daniels consistently tests Sandra's limits, which seem to know no bounds: she agrees to strip-search Becky, and this first in a series of violations emboldens Daniels to sexually tempt men (including Sandra's fiancé, and one of Becky's co-workers) to do his bidding, amounting to phone-sex at its most perverse. Dowd expertly captures her character's officiousness and moral weakness, which falls somewhere between self-satisfied and self-loathing, and Bill Camp heartbreakingly plays similar notes as the fiancé worn down by Daniels and drink.

These crimes of obedience ("I did as I was told to do," one character offers lamely) may at first seem as incredible as they are outrageous, but it doesn't take much digging to recall historical precedents, from Nazi Germany to the infamous Milgram Experiment. Without ever making the subtext text, Zobel lays out a story dramatizing how willingly humans abdicate personal responsibility, enjoy power over others, embrace "confirmation bias" in all its forms, and implicitly—through apathy, inertia, and inaction—endorse crimes committed in our names as American citizens, from the deaths of innocent civilians to the civil-rights violations of American prisoners.

With this in mind, the policies and uniforms of a fast-food franchise begin to appear as a twisted parody of capitalist corporatism (at best?), the military mindset (at worse?), and fascism (at worst), our institutions a hair-thin, scarily permeable membrane between civilization and savagery.

Or one can simply take Compliance at face value, as a seedy true-crime story, made all the more unsettling by the subtle cues of a crack cast of character actors. That view has led many to reject the controversial film as mere exploitation, but Zobel's narrative control shows restraint, betraying none of the characters' concealed pleasure or willful moral denial.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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