I don’t doubt there is a good film in director Craig Zobel. (Perhaps his debut, Great World of Sound, is one. I haven’t seen it.) But there is something fundamentally solid about the first 30 or so minutes of his latest film, Compliance. It’s got some of the same hypnotically furtive, jaundiced slow-drip of Martha Marcy May Marlene or Kelly Reichardt’s last few. Unfortunately, Compliance, the eight-years distanced take on a case-breaking, belief-defying phone scam incident, almost comes across like a perfunctory TV movie.
2004: In the city of Mount Washington, Kentucky, 37-year-old David Stewart is arrested with charges of impersonating a police officer and solicitation of sodomy after an event involving the false arrest and sexual assault of a McDonald’s cashier. Despite signs pointing to the man’s guilt (the spate of reports on similar incidents since 1992, 2000-04 ceased after the man’s arrest), Stewart was acquitted on all charges. Once aware of this background, there is shock, followed by a rushing need to understand how and why this could happen. Compliance doesn’t inspire such reactions. Instead, Zobel plays it artsy safe, turning a once-incendiary story into a mere galvanizer of opaque arbitration.
Things start off fairly well, with an evocatively drab urban milieu and static insert shots of things being deep-fried. The faces of the fictional fast-food restaurant ChickWich staff are next-door familiar and their dialogue authentically mundane. But as soon as the obviously fake cop calls in on an alleged theft investigation and fastidious manager Sandra starts complying away, the film becomes a bone-dry, tediously drawn-out near-farce. Based on true events or not, the way the hoax plays out is distractingly unconvincing. Not only is this a surprisingly dull film, it is one that has people doing things that are infuriatingly illogical. You’re sympathetic with the people, then you just don’t understand them.
The “true events” inspiring Compliance are fascinating for sure: a creep playing on people’s naivete to control them for his sadistic amusement and a manager seemingly unable to think for herself. But a fast food restaurant is hardly Gitmo, and what ultimately becomes more compelling is why people comply at all with such empty threats. Unfortunately, we are only allowed a glimpse with this film. And making suppositions and allowing stoic minimalism speak for an actual life-wrecking event seems a little irresponsible, even eight years later.
Chickwich manager Sandra (an amazing turn of awkward grace by Ann Dowd) may have had her reasons to believe the caller, but all the film seems to rest on is her vacancy. Sexual assault victim Becky is just that. The film shows that she’s a bit coquettish and maybe a little wary of her boss. That’s about it. We just have her steely, resigned face. She acts like a deer in headlights through the whole thing, and it’s impossible to see why. You don’t feel less bad for her, but you begin to question the filmmaker’s motivation.
It’s not entertaining, it’s not illuminating, and amazingly enough, it’s not particularly shocking. Compliance makes its impact most as a dull exercise in shallow titillation and, perhaps, a pensive look at a dilapidated parking lot containing the very loneliest of all the wayward shopping carts. The less-is-more aesthetic this film employs takes a well-rendered setting and cast and lead them next to nowhere. There are little touches that work great (Sandra peeking back over a rack of sandwiches after failing to commiserate with her underlings, the assistant manager Marti nervously poking out her tongue piercing), but they’re wasted on a movie that never adds up.
On the other side of things, after a bit of rudimentary sewing-up, the film ends with a powerful variation on ABC’s enraging interview with the strangely compliant McDonald’s manager. Disgraced Sandra, upon hitting a lawyer-assisted red flag in the conversation, chuckles and jumps in with some small talk that — once again — resolutely, honey-baked hamfistedly fails to show ‘em a little personality. It’s a sweetly tragic moment that makes you feel bad for her yet also completely unnerved at her sheer, echosome density.
Compliance is a film that could’ve been. There are compelling side themes, but they’re difficult to absorb when the central crime is both true and so ludicrous. So we’re left with a mess of a narrative that beckons, intrigues, confounds, and finally alienates. At best, it’s a Hollywood-sized warning for service industry owners to screen their managers more carefully. Raising awareness of these sorts of hoaxes is a good thing. Making them almost more ambiguous and confusing than they already are, not so much.