IT'S nearly impossible to enjoy watching a movie like "Compliance," making it difficult to separate the uncomfortable feelings it generates with its quality until it sinks in: That's exactly what director Craig Zobel wants.
"Compliance" is about how we blindly follow authoritative voices simply because of the perceived power they have over us. Sandra (Ann Dowd) is the manager of a fast-food restaurant. She's not a beloved boss, but she's fair, doing her best to placate a heavy Friday crowd with the threat of a disguised company inspector looming over her head, just as she learns they won't have enough bacon to make it through the weekend. Becky (Dreama Walker, "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23") is a cashier at the restaurant, focusing more on texting boys on her bejeweled phone than being an attentive employee.
A disembodied voice (a supremely creepy Pat Healy) calls into the restaurant claiming to be a cop. Becky has stolen money from a customer, he says, and he has the evidence to prove it. He asks Sandra to help him with the investigation, telling her to quarantine Becky and search her things. Quickly, his demands on Susan and accusations against Becky escalate to extreme proportions. Strip-search her, Healy's character demands after convincing Susan he has the blessing of her regional manager to perform as his proxy. He convinces Susan she's helping Becky by performing the investigation, rather than forcing the police to deal with the situation.
The film culminates in an event so horrible and shocking it's difficult to believe. That is, until the final moments reveal that the film is largely based on true events, specifically an incident at a Mount Washington, Ky., McDonald's, eventually leading to a man who was thought to be connected with 70 similar calls in 30 states.
Zobel is the co-creator of the popular web cartoon "Homestar Runner," whose previous film was the decidedly lighter, yet similarly cynical "Great World of Sound." He expertly draws the scenes as mundane, using silence to make each moment that much more squirm-inducing. Scenes jump between the claustrophobic office where Becky sits, nearly nude, and the buzzing restaurant where laughing patrons have no idea what's going on scant feet away from them. Zobel makes his setting feel immediate and real, from the gum-smacking employees to the dowdy manager who just wants to do the right thing.
Zobel also allows for a certain amount of disconnect between audience and character. Would we do the same thing? Or would we ask for a badge number? Or even hang up when it comes to the outrageous things being asked of us? It's infuriating watching characters do what we perceive we wouldn't, but for a voice on the phone who says he's in charge.
But the movie wouldn't have worked without the fabulous performances from Dowd, Walker and Healy, who is able to sound both affable and menacing at the same time. Yet, "Compliance's" strengths, to its credit, don't make it any less easy to watch.
Contact Molly Eichel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5909. Follow her on Twitter @mollyeichel.