Directed by Craig Zobel. Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger. (2012, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 7, 2012
"You're fucked without bacon, I can tell you that," a harried fast-food-franchise deliveryman tells middle-aged restaurant manager Sandra (Dowd). At that point, neither one of them could guess just how off-the-rails Sandra's day is going to go. It's like something out of a horror movie, but much, much worse: Compliance is based on actual events that occurred at a Kentucky McDonald's in 2004. During that incident, an employee was forcibly strip-searched by her boss when a perverse prank caller, who pretended to be a police officer, telephoned the eatery and described a (nonexistent) theft by said employee. That's essentially what happens to Dreama Walker's Becky, a minimum-wage slave whose day spirals from bad to terrifically creepy as the presumed limits of managerial authority are bent, and then broken, beyond all rational explanation. The banal tedium of normalcy skews by tiny degrees toward humiliation, shame, and blind obedience to, literally, "the man."
Compliance is a difficult film to watch – walkouts have been reported at more than one screening – but it's also a calculating and intimate deconstruction of the greater social ills that our fast-food nation faces as a whole. As such, it's a small gem of a movie, disturbingly realistic and profoundly terrifying on a near-primal level. (This sort of reality-based, nonfantastical awfulness was also explored to Grand-Guignol effect by Stuart Gordon in his 2007 film Stuck, which recounted and expanded on news accounts of a grisly hit-and-run that went equally, dramatically awry.)
The queasily believable dynamic between the matronly employer and her anxious, confused employee grounds the film in an all-too-plausible, albeit considerably darker, corner of the contemporary American workplace. It's the ceding of authority to a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone that really nails you to your seat, though. Are we really this sheepish? Has the overall American zeitgeist become this morally bewildering? Compliance says yes, and sadly, Wiki-ing "strip search prank call scam" confirms it. Best to order in food from here on out.