As if preemptively addressing the audience skepticism sure to follow, Craig Zobel's "Compliance" opens with the words "BASED ON TRUE EVENTS" dominating the screen in big, bold lettering. A short, queasy movie about a long, cold February day at a generic Ohio fast food joint, the proceedings are essentially a morality play, and practically a stage play, about what happens when people trying to do the right thing fail to question how right that thing is.
It's already a tough morning for ChickWich manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). A freezer oversight the night before has forced her to hurriedly replace the restaurant's spoiled inventory, and a ‘secret shopper' will possibly be evaluating the performance of her mostly indifferent staff. Then she gets a phone call from a man introducing himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who claims that teenage counter jockey Becky (Dreama Walker) had taken money from a customer's purse earlier that day. Officer Daniels insists that Sandra search Becky's stuff and keep her under a close watch until his units can arrive. From there, the matter escalates as the voice on the other end flatters and guilts Sandra into following his increasingly strange instructions; Sandra even convinces others to help her keep Becky in "custody" when she has to attend to other matters.
The result is something like Kevin Smith's "Clerks" by way of Stanley Milgram's legendary social experiments, pushing gullible people to the limits of cooperation and complacency because they're more concerned with losing their jobs than their dignity. It's a distinct change of pace from the writer-director's 2007 film, "Great World of Sound," though similarly focused on the extent to which individuals are morally deluded and conflicted by the requirements of their occupation. That film was a bittersweet examination of the American Dream as fraud and vice versa, incorporating the very real auditions of amateur musicians into a narrative framework.
"Compliance," despite its fictitious trappings and sparse touches of humor ("Corporate always wants two people for a strip-search, right?"), adheres more clinically to the facts. As much as the group's behavior may strain credibility and lack common sense, it's hard to ignore that more than seventy identical occurrences took place in thirty different states over the course of a decade, and that much of this film's gradual obedience and ultimately traumatic humiliation stems from a specific case-cracking incident at a McDonald's in Kentucky. Committed by a man who was never even in the same room, these horrid crimes doubled as a long-term, far-reaching psychological study, and Zobel is keen on examining precisely how such terrible things could happen in plain daylight, time and time again, mere feet away from oblivious consumers whose primary concern was whether or not their meal came with too much mayo.
The performers uniformly transcend the story's limited settings and seemingly far-fetched developments. Dowd embodies Sandra's pity and pride at every turn and Walker's initial defensiveness gives way to convincing submission, while Healy conveys a stern sense of vocal command by phone and utter creepiness in person without ever doing anything more disgusting than making himself a sandwich.
The back room confrontations are often framed in aptly confined shots, and the film's final scenes confirm that a damning lack of accountability in this situation extended well beyond the workplace. On the whole, "Compliance" is a fairly deliberate and effective piece of provocation. Though it may be frustrating to watch characters who don't realize the implications of their conduct until it's much too late, that could very well be Zobel's entire point. If you're not angered by the characters' actions, then how do you know that you wouldn't have been equally compliant under the same circumstances?