Movies offer a matchless gift to their makers: verisimilitude. Seeing really is believing. Something in our neural nature predisposes us to accept whatever we see up on the screen as reality — and that’s even before factoring in synchronized sound and the illusion of motion. A giant, impregnable space station called the Death Star? Sure, why not. A little later, the destruction of that same Death Star by a torpedo-like thing whooshing up a heating duct? Sure, that, too. Some combination of our desire to believe and a filmmaker’s artistry makes the movies work.
That gift comes with a disclaimer, though. Note those words “filmmaker’s artistry.’’ Just as we happily grant the most fantastical onscreen actions a dramatic actuality so long as the filmmaker makes them seem real, so do we reject anything that violates our experience of human nature and everyday life. Even if we’re watching a docudrama about something we know happened, and it doesn’t feel real? Then forget about it.
“Compliance’’ claims to be based on a true incident. The incident in the movie takes place at a fast-food place in Ohio. Things aren’t going well at this particular ChickWich. Someone left the freezer door open overnight, so there isn’t enough bacon. Someone else has called in sick. A “franchise quality-control person’’ might be showing up. It’s Friday, a particularly busy day. So Sandra, the manager (Ann Dowd), is already feeling stressed when she’s told the police want her on the phone. One of her counter staff, Becky (Dreama Walker, of the charmingly titled ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23’’), has been accused of stealing from a customer’s purse.
The phone call comes about 15 minutes into the movie. Up to that point, it’s not clear where “Compliance’’ is going — but it does seem to be getting somewhere. Writer-director Craig Zobel (“Great World of Sound’’) conveys a sense of the over-bright yet beaten-down atmosphere that fast-food places specialize in; and the characters feel familiar without quite seeming stereotyped. Dowd, for example, has the sort of careworn, all-too-human face almost never seen in American movies.
Apparently, Fridays are really busy at police stations, too. So the man on the phone, Officer Lewis (Pat Healy, channeling his inner Kevin Spacey), asks that Becky be taken into a back room, since the police are unable to get to the ChickWich quite yet. The next 70 minutes or so consist of him ordering Sandra and then other ChickWich staff to interrogate, inspect, and do other increasingly outrageous things to Becky. Lewis asks if Sandra has a husband. No, but she has a boyfriend. Well, Lewis proposes, why not have him come by and help out? Sandra thinks this is a fine idea. Well, it’s not, with degrading consequences for both Becky and Sandra’s boyfriend (though a lot worse for her).
A young woman at the press screening for “Compliance’’ asked the friend I watched it with, “At what point do you think the movie became exploitative?’’ He answered with a question of his own. “For the actors or the audience?’’
People do stupid things all the time. My friend and I sat through “Compliance,’’ didn’t we? But there is a level of stupidity displayed by the people in this movie that beggars belief. Their behavior is to stupidity as the Death Star is to a doughnut.
Anyone in this country who has seen a minimum of two episodes of a TV crime series — which is to say, everyone in this country over the age of 7 — knows at least a little bit about police procedure: the accused’s right to make a phone call, being read the Miranda warning, how understandably proprietary cops are about what they do, stuff like that. About two minutes into Officer Lewis’s phone call any one of those people will figure out what’s going on. About five minutes into the phone call, that same person will begin to wonder why no one in the movie has. And about 15 minutes into the phone call, that person may recall a presumably apocryphal story about Pia Zadora.
Wanting to strengthen her acting credentials, she was appearing at a Florida dinner theater in “The Diary of Anne Frank’’ in the title role. Things got so bad that when the Gestapo appears onstage someone in the audience yelled, “They’re hiding in the attic!’’ I guarantee you — SPOILER ALERT — someone at some showing of “Compliance’’ is going to yell, “He’s not a cop!’’