As reference-quality filmmaking resources have become more affordable and easier to obtain, independent filmmakers have been given the opportunity to explore unusual and, some might say, non-commercial ideas. Their unique, distinctive visions, coupled with intriguing material, has resulted in some memorable and disturbing films. Emerging writer-director Craig Zobel is just such a filmmaker, and his latest feature, 'Compliance', is certainly something you won't forget in a hurry.
It's a Friday, and as the manager of a popular chicken fast food restaurant, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is prepared for a busy night ahead. She runs a tight ship with her mostly teenage employees, and despite awkward attempts at conversation, maintains a professional distance from them. So when a police officer calls Sandra and informs her that her employee Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, she takes the situation seriously. However, Officer Daniels can't make it to the restaurant right away, and asks Sandra to keep Beckie under watch in the office. Beckie insists that she hasn't done anything, but Sandra always sticks to the rules. So when she is asked to search Becky, she doesn't think anything of the request...
From the first frame, there is a strong sense of something uncomfortable and foreboding about 'Compliance'. Inspired by true events, it descends into a horrifying sexual nightmare, a collection of innocent puppets being manipulated by the most twisted of puppeteers. Zobel and his cinematographer Adam Stone turn the ordinary restaurant into a complex psychological landscape, a rich photographic tapestry of sizzling fries and shining metal surfaces. The narrative launches straight into the chaos of the Friday night shift, allowing the backstory of the characters to emerge through its easily conversational dialogue and the detailed costume and production design. This economy of storytelling becomes even more vital when the mind games begin, as the circumstances become even more complicated. Zobel and his team hold strong every step of the way, with a tremendous confidence and expert visual sense. There is a detached, unnerving quality to the film, much like David Slade's masterful 'Hard Candy' (2005), placing us in the position of the observer, the voyeur. As Becky is subjected to more extreme sexual humiliation at the hands of her unknowing co-workers, we can only sit helpless and horrified, the only ones aware of just how far these unwitting victims are being manipulated.
There is a strong sense of something uncomfortable and foreboding about 'Compliance'.
None of the performances are particularly showy or steal the film, and this is definitely a positive. This is a strong ensemble piece, with an arresting performance by Ann Dowd at the centre. Hers is a difficult task, the executer of Becky's torture, but unknowing or complicit in it. In order for the conceit of the film to work, we have to understand why she never questions "Officer Daniels" and his increasingly bizarre requests, and it is a credit to Dowd's performance that we never doubt Sandra's convictions. This only makes her actions more horrifying. As the abused, Dreama Walker is unusual and unnerving, as her will to fight back fades into that of a whipped, abused plaything. She doesn't cry or, after a point, even question the punishments she is being dealt, but becomes a physical body to be used and manipulated. This isn't the traditional emotional female victim we are so used to, rather something more disconnected and realistic, and infinitely more upsetting.
Unfortunately, the film fumbles in its final ten minutes, extending its welcome further than it needs to in order to neatly tie all the threads of the film together. This coda is unnecessary, and requires the introduction of far too many new characters and new locations, especially jarring as, up until that point, the narrative has focused entirely around the restaurant and the home of "Officer Daniels". It's an unfortunate decision, but one that doesn't lessen the impact of the film that has come before it.
'Compliance' is such an unusual and uncompromising film, a bold work from an exciting director at the start of his career. In the hands of a major studio, this film might have been watered down, or its sexual horrors exploited for cheap thrills. Instead, we have a real gem of independent filmmaking, and an experience you aren't likely to forget or shake off any time soon.