“Compliance” contemplates the stand-by effect quite compellingly

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Indie thriller is one of the best films of the year

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

In 2004, reports of a sexual assault case at a McDonald’s in Kentucky hit the news. The manager of the restaurant, after receiving a phone call from a man claiming to be a cop, strip-searched one of her employees accused of stealing from a customer. The ordeal lasted for hours. Investigators later learned that man on the other line was, in fact, an imposter, and that he had orchestrated 70 similar incidences across the country.

Fast-forward to 2012. The events of the McDonald’s sex assault scandal are re-enacted and contemplated in Craig Zobel’s indie thriller “Compliance.” After a quick set-up and introduction to the main players in the story, Zobel submits the viewer to nearly 90 minutes of pain-staking precision and white-knuckle suspense accompanied by a chilling score.

Many might feel that “Compliance” is voyeuristic, that Zobel is taking advantage of real-life victims by dramatizing their situation. But that’s simply not true. Rather, the film is so brilliantly frustrating that it’s a hard film to enjoy, but that’s not the point.

“Compliance” is close and intimate, even slow perhaps. Zobel’s film, with the help of a solid cast, turns the manager’s office of the Chick-Wich (guess McDonald’s didn’t want product placement) into a stage. Most of the actors play convincing small-town fast-food employees, rolling their eyes at their manager, texting when they don’t have a customer. And the imposter/caller is brought to terrifying life in the gentle face and calm voice of Pat Healy.

But Ann Dowd, as Sandra the Chick-Wich manager, steals the show. Her character arc, from concerned boss to willing accomplice to naïve victim, is handled perfectly and delicately by Dowd who never holds contempt for her character’s actions and never makes Sandra seem stupid. As the caller begins to compliment her for her help, you can see the slightest glisten in Dowd’s eye. It’s truly a brilliant performance worthy of Oscar consideration.

In some screenings, viewers have yelled out “come on!” or “no way!” In others, viewers have stormed out in frustration. “Compliance” is a tough sit, but worth your endurance.

The film is claustrophobic and calculating, sometimes antagonistic to its viewers, but it raises troubling questions about human behaviour, questions we all ask when we read about Gestapo carrying out atrocious orders or Joe Paterno remaining quiet about sexual abuse for years. Compliance, the film argues, is a seductive default setting, an idea captured brilliantly in one simple line. When complimented for her assistance by the imposter, Sandra responses, quite humbly, “I’m just doing my job.”