Craig Zobel’s Compliance, a hit at Sundance making an indie-circuit encore here, is based on a particular real-life event, in which the shift manager at a fast food restaurant (here, the libel-dodging “ChickWich” franchise) receives a phone call from an “Officer Daniels,” with some bad news about a staff member matching the description of one of the girls at the register. Amid the teen’s protestations of innocence, the manager and her subordinates are enlisted by the voice of authority to interrogate and investigate, and the film settles into a sort of single-set claustrophic thriller, with incidents of escalating cruelty and incredulity demonstrating the title concept (like the proverbial frog in the pot brought slowly to boil, the ChickWich employees are gradually acclimated to the heat).
In his Q&A, Zobel cited the Milgram Experiment as his main passkey for the material, framing the movie as a sort of what-would-you-do morality play. But he also choose to open the film with an American flag (rustling faintly around the pole in the ChickWich parking lot), and Compliance’s microcosm becomes a convincing, human-scaled demonstration of the kind of psychology behind America’s slow surrender of its civil liberties: our trust in authority, our belief that the innocent have nothing to hide; our poorly informed meekness in matters of due process (in my notes, I seem to have scrawled, in large block letters, “KNOW YOUR RIGHTS”).
Or, to be broader: I’m reading Eichmann in Jerusalem right now, for pleasure, weirdly, and Compliance jibes very much with Arendt’s account of how hierarchies of power seem inherently convincing; how we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to them no matter how arbitrary; how power reinforces itself by turning every tier of people into both exploited and exploiter; and how the reservations we barely bothered to squash at the time become so very articulated and moral in hindsight.
Is Zobel being condescending, ascribing a dumbly submissive mentality to working-class red-state white folks and flattering our implicit sense that we’d know better? Aside from being true in all its particulars, Compliance maintains an empathetic, eye-level realism in its imaging of the ChickWich: the tightly shot dinner rush and prep stations, and the introduction of the staff, with posturing teenage diffidence from the crew and slightly frumpy hard-won competence from management, all seem squarely present enough to ground any movie. If Zobel does err, he does so by surrounding the voice on the phone with drippingly ironic trappings (however accurate his banally all-American the home furnishings may be: though the real-life incident resulted in the acquittal of a suspect, Zobel is pretty unambiguous about his guilt in the film, and was only slightly less so in the Q&A).