The words “inspired by true events” fill the screen in enormous type at the start of Compliance, a way for writer-director Craig Zobel to warn the viewer the movie you are about to watch is preposterous, but it really happened, I swear! I still call bunk. Set entirely over the course of a day in a fast-food restaurant, the film follows what happens when the manager Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged, insecure woman trying her best to please everyone, gets a call from a police officer (Pat Healy) claiming the cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer.
Following the caller’s orders, Sandra relieves Becky from her post at the counter and takes her into the back room to search her purse, then her pockets, for the missing cash. Nothing turns up. Becky does everything she’s asked while proclaiming her innocence. Then the cop demands a strip search. Then even more.
The point of Compliance, which caused walkouts and shouting matches when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is how we are programmed to do things that go against our natural instincts as long as we believe we have the law on our side. Like Nazi Germany, we look the other way and try not to think about the consequences, because we are just following orders, and who are we to question the people in power? But Zobel doesn’t sell the idea, just the outrage: The more indignities and violations Becky endures at the hands of people who are her friends and co-workers, the more Compliance feels like a hollow provocation. None of the characters seem remotely realistic; none of their behavior is the tiniest bit credible. As things go from bad to horrible, you get the urge to walk into that back room where Becky is being interrogated and start yelling, “What’s wrong with you people?” at the other characters.
The movie even fails on a psychological level, never illustrating how, in a pressure-cooker environment and swept up by mob-think mentality, we are capable of committing acts that innately repel us. Suddenly, the impossible becomes plausible. According to the filmmakers, the events in Compliance were inspired by more than 70 cases in which loonies impersonating cops called business establishments and tricked employees into doing nasty things to each other. Those accounts, if true, might make for intriguing reading. Compliance, however, is a whole different story.
Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Philip Ettinger.
Writer-director: Craig Zobel.
Producers: Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 90 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema, Cosford. Opens Sept. 27 at Miami Beach Cinematheque.