American director Craig Zobel's third feature seems to begin as another one of those small-scale, independently-produced portraits of people struggling to survive in heartland America. Cleverly and swiftly, Mr. Zobel sets up, in a few well-observed strokes, the tense relationship between one worker and one manager at a small-town fast-food franchise. Then, during a particularly busy day where they're short one employee and several ingredients, manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) gets the call that sets the ball rolling: a police officer is on the phone saying that counter worker Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, asking her to take over the occurrence and investigate for him.

     What starts out as a sketchy but believable situation mutates quickly, as the viewer realises that the "officer Daniels" (Pat Healy) on the other end of the line is not exactly your standard policeman, but a manipulator passing himself off as a cop; a voice artist exquisitely sensitive to the inflections and the giveaways of everyone around, feeding him what he needs to keep the pretense going for as long as he wants it. Mr. Zobel's one misstep in the tightly coiled, extraordinarily squirm-inducing exercise that is Compliance is in revealing the true identity of "officer Daniels" to the viewer 40 minutes into the film, while sheltering it from the other characters. It's a Hitchcockian gambit that underlines the mysterious power of language, assertiveness, attitude to create a hold over someone, how the semblance of authority is enough to block otherwise perfectly sensible people from using their heads.

     Sandra, Becky and everyone else at this Ohio "Chickwich" franchise are being taken in by a master conman, a prankster who gets off on demeaning women and taking gullible Midwesterners alongside him for the ride, making them accomplices to his sickening, exploitative prank. Are the viewers being equally taken in by Mr. Zobel? Or is he merely putting us in the hot seat, making us writhe while realising that "there for the grace of God go I"? In so doing, though, the revelation of "officer Daniels'" identity takes off some of the edge that, for its first 40 minutes, maintained Compliance almost unbearably nerve-wracking, shifting the question from "who is this guy and why is he doing this?" to "when will they realise who he is and is he ever going to be caught?".

     The film becomes more "conventional" (though the word is hardly applicable to its headstrong, single-minded, streamlined progression), gets closer to a classic thriller format, is diverted from the confrontational borderlands it almost traveled to - but it gets close enough to leave the viewer seriously discombobulated, as its origin in a series of real-life prank calls that took place in heartland America over the past decade hits you like a hammer. Compliance is a quiet little gem, one that needed to trust in itself a little bit more to reach full bloom, but that still gets you asking serious questions in ways very few modern American films have explored.

USA 2012
90 minutes
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey
Director/writer Craig Zobel; cinematographers Adam Stone and Scott Gardner (widescreen, colour); composer Heather McIntosh; editor Jane Rizzo; costumes Karen Malecki; designer Matthew Munn; producers Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Tyler Davidson, Theo Sena and Mr. Zobel, Dogfish Pictures and Bad Cop Bad Cop Film Productions in association with Muskat Filmed Properties and Low Spark Films
Screened March 11th 2014  (DVD, Lisbon)


Popular Posts