The opening scenes of “Compliance,” the riveting drama written and directed by Craig Zobel of 2007’s “Great World of Sound,” are deceptively comic: Sandra, the manager of an Ohio fast-food restaurant, gives her employees a stern talking-to over spoiled bacon before awkwardly bantering with two cashiers about their love lives. But when Sandra, played convincingly and sympathetically by Ann Dowd (“Garden State”), receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer, “Compliance” takes on a noticeably darker turn, examining power, obedience, and the limits of conscience.
Based on a 2004 incident at a McDonald’s in Mt. Washington, Kentucky, “Compliance” chronicles the series of events that begins when “Officer” Daniels (Pat Healy) claims that Becky (Dreama Walker) has been accused of theft by a customer. Recruiting Sandra to assist him with his “investigation,” Daniels manipulates Sandra, her fiancé, and several of the restaurant’s other employees into subjecting Becky to various measures that are initially mildly invasive, but quickly escalate into sickening acts of personal violation.
Zobel’s script and direction manage to keep the action and dialogue rooted firmly in the everyday, leaving the audience to deduce for itself some of the film’s weightier moral questions: How culpable are Sandra and her coworkers for what happens to Becky? Can people really rationalize away morality when put into positions of power? And, most troublingly, what would the audience have done in Sandra’s place? The shift in Sandra’s demeanor toward Becky from kindly reassuring to menacingly authoritative is subtle and gradual, resulting in a character that viewers can both pity and loathe.
Particularly impressive are the performances by Dowd and Healy, who bring to life the film’s central relationship without ever coming face to face. “Officer” Daniels only appears onscreen a handful of times, yet Healy is able to construct a complete character using just his voice and fleeting facial expressions. Dowd, meanwhile, emboldened by the sense of responsibility and empowerment of “Officer” Daniels, is transformed from a fast-food manager to a ruthless would-be vigilante.
Perhaps “Compliance’s” greatest accomplishment, however, is its ability to make a seemingly impossible situation believable. By the end of the film, audience members understand how an unseen caller is capable of convincing a well-meaning boss to strip-search her employee, intimidating a bubbly teenager into submitting to increasingly degrading treatment in the name of an investigation, and carrying on the deception for the better part of a day. “Compliance” breathes life into its story, turning a nightly news headline into an absorbing human drama.