A chilling moral horror story

We know, every one of us, that were we posted as guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, we would never - we could never - abuse the captives. We'd resist on moral grounds even if ordered by our superiors.

Right? Think again.

And you will if you watch Compliance, a harrowing, gut-wrenching fable about power and authority that shows that even the most well-adjusted, ordinary person could be tempted to degrade and dehumanize their neighbor.

A taut, understated minimalist masterwork, writer-director Craig Zobel's sophomore effort is set not in a prison or a battle zone, but in the most mundane of locations, a fast-food restaurant.

Based on an actual case from 2004, Compliance features a masterful performance by Ann Dowd as Sandra, the middle-aged manager of a fictional, nondescript joint called ChikWich in a fictional, nondescript Ohio suburb who is persuaded by a prank caller to detain and humiliate one of her employees, an attractive teen named Becky (Dreama Walker).

Sandra is an overweight, perennially stressed-out, melancholy woman who feels her best days are behind her. Frustrated by her less-than-splendid job and life, Sandra tries to impress Becky and fellow counter girl Connie (Nikiya Mathis) by announcing that she and her fiance, Van (Bill Camp), a nondescript big lug who drives a beat-up old pickup, have a great sex life. She winces as she walks away to the sounds of the girls mimicking her.

Set over the course of a single miserable day, Compliance opens with Sandra's harried attempts to get her stock of frozen foods and her slacker employees in line.

Things go pear-shaped when a caller who identifies himself only as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, in devilish form) tells Sandra that Becky has robbed one of the customers. The manager complies when asked to take Becky to the back room and strip-search her. (Becky isn't allowed to dress again and spends the rest of the film in the buff or barely covered in a skimpy apron.)

Becky puts up little resistance to the proceedings after being told by the caller that she could avoid jail if she does everything he asks.

As the evening progresses, Zobel and his actors expertly crank up the tension and the psychological, and eventually sexual, violence.

Becky is victimized over and over again as the always busy Sandra has her underlings and eventually her beau watch over the teenager.

Compliance will make you squirm in your seat and yell at the screen.

Never exploitive or sexually explicit, it forces the viewer to enter that taboo, intimate space between abuser and victim, making us feel complicit.

Are we, simply by watching the proceedings, not also culpable for Becky's suffering? Not since Hitchcock's Rear Window has the viewer been forced to reevaluate the pleasure and the guilt of voyeurism.

Compliance proves that true horror isn't physical. Broken limbs, cut throats, or grisly demons have little effect next to the true horror - moral horror. And it's chillingly effective because it shows that everyone, each and every one of us, is more than capable of perpetrating it.

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.


Directed by Craig Zobel. With Ralph Rodriguez, James McCaffrey, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Nikiya Mathis, Pat Healy, Ashlie Atkinson, Matt Servitto. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language and sexual content/nudity).