Wow, this is a film with a takeaway message. Compliance is an American. Sundance-stamped indie from writer-director Craig Zobel, who’s pretty new to feature films (and totally new to me), and it’s surely the talking-point movie of the year. I’m going to do everything in my power not to give too much of the story away, as the experience of watching it unfold is devastating, and all the more so for not knowing how far it’s going to go.
Based on true events, conflating a number of hoax calls to fast-food restaurants in America and one particular case at a McDonald’s in Kentucky that went to trial in 2004 (I knew nothing about these appalling “pranks”), it takes place over a day in the working life of an Ohio chain fast-food restaurant, fictionalised as ChickWich. Shot in a real restaurant, with fake livery, Compliance is a realist study in human nature, in particular the worst recesses of it. We begin the day with a meeting of the outlet’s small staff, led by middle-aged manager Sandra (a totally convincing Ann Dowd, who’s played “the mother” in so many films and TV shows you’ll feel you know her already). She’s not a jobsworth in the worst sense, but she’s a franchise boss, and as such exists in deference to a managerial supply chain that goes right up to “Corporate”. She’s already on the back foot for a batch of bacon that’s been spoiled due to a freezer not being closed properly, and she’s not about to break any protocols.
A call comes in, once the working day is underway (it’s a Friday, it’s a busy day, adding to the stress of Sandra’s lot), apparently from a police officer, Daniels, who claims he has the regional manager on the other line and a customer with him who swears she had money stolen from her purse by one of the counter staff. He describes her as young, female, blonde … and Sandra does the rest, offering up Becky (Dreama Walker – you may recognise her as Zach’s girlfriend from seasons one and two of The Good Wife). We’ve seen some tension between the older, unmarried manager and the young, sexually promiscuous server (Sandra boasted of her fiancé “sexting” her after Becky revealed she has three boyfriends on the go, and Becky and a workmate were overheard mocking her).
From here, the situation builds to a grim, depressing crescendo. (When Sandra reports the story back to anyone, she mistakenly says that Officer Daniels knew Becky’s name; we know that Sandra gave him the name.) Daniels remains on the line while Sandra is instructed to apprehend Becky and take her into a back room where she is to be held until the police arrive. Daniels, authoritative and gruff, flatters Sandra and imbues her with a sense of civic responsibility, as well as subtly filling her with fear: for her own job, for punishment from head office, and for the consequences of standing in the way of a broader police inquiry into Becky. Sandra becomes the willing accomplice in the caller’s crime. It is no spoiler to reveal that “Officer Daniels” may not be an officer at all, and as the “prank” (more of a sadistic social experiment, you surmise) escalates, along with the blameless and cowed Becky’s humiliation, we the audience becomes suspicious and eventually learn things that – in a skilfully constructed script – various characters are not party to.
The acting is naturalistic and all the more haunting for it. I must admit, I had my face in my hands at the more uncomfortable parts. It’s been a while since I was so glued to the screen and affected by what I was seeing. You buy into the fact that this is really happening. Sandra remains calm, and compliant, while other staff react in different ways to what Daniels requires of them, as the phone is passed around, and a busy Friday at ChickWich grinds on. Zobel seems to be offering a critique of fast-food and corporate culture in America, constantly cutting from the back room to actuality of the burgers being chomped down out of their waxed-paper wrappers and shakes being vacuumed up from brightly-decorated pails.
It may seem a soft target, junk food, but Zobel isn’t criticising the individuals who choose to put something called a “cookies and cream shake” into their fat faces, but the system that has mechanised our eating habits into one big battery farm, with ample car parking out front. The music, by Heather McIntosh, is stealthily built from deep, melancholy strings, lending a tragic inevitability to the events that occur, and a poignancy to Zobel’s regular, beautifully-framed stills of discarded cups in puddles, ploughed snow, bent drinking straws.
You won’t see what’s coming. And you won’t guess the way the denouement to the crisis plays out, but it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense. You’ll wish it was a fantasy, but, apparently, it’s not. Even if it was a pure fiction, and had never happened, you’d start to wonder if it could.
I defy you to see Compliance and not still be thinking about the what-ifs days later. It’s hard to watch at some points, but not because, like other films that seek to shock, it involves seeing somebody having their skull caved in – the fashionable money-shot of our times. The violence herein is not gory, or heightened, it is subtle, insidious, terrifying in its banality, disturbing because of the brightly strip-lit surroundings of a fast-food joint’s unlovely office, and all the more horrific for largely happening away from our prying eyes. Bravo to Walker for an uninhibited performance – this was a brave role to take, especially when one audience member at the Sundance Q&A seemed to imply that Zobel had effectively exploited her and another accused him of (beware spoilers in this link) “making violence against women entertaining.” He hasn’t. This is not “entertaining” in the traditional sense.
Some will say that Becky is weak. But she is young, and she is in fear for her job, and if you accept that she believes Officer Daniels is legit and that his threats are real, you have to wonder what you might do in the same ugly, disorienting circumstances. Go and see this film. It’s difficult to get too specific without spoiling it. (Incidentally, I’d read Hannah McGill’s long and thoughtful review in Sight & Sound – not available online – and knew the whole plot, but as I say, my heart was in my mouth nonetheless.)
Big Mac, lies to go.
PS: Do not read this is you haven’t seen the film, but there’s a Wikipedia entry about the real-life prank calls, including the one in Kentucky in 2004 that formed the basis of Compliance. It makes the film more disturbing that it actually happened, not less. Shame on McDonald’s, too.