Film Review: 'Compliance' wonderfully acted, elegantly photographed, but not convincing

Dreama Walker in a scene from the film 'Compliance.

AP Photo/Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Dreama Walker in a scene from the film "Compliance.

Many movies, perhaps most, ask audiences to identify with rebels: Cops who don't behave "by the book," young lovers who defy their parents, artists who flout convention, jokesters, misfits, outlaws.

Perhaps we enjoy these stories because most of us pretty much toe the line. We are obedient, and hope to be praised and rewarded for our manageability.

"Compliance," as you might expect, is a rare movie about people who do as they're told. It's based on a true event that occurred in 2004 at a McDonald's restaurant, yet it's more unbelievable — and more disturbing — than many entirely fictional movies about murderers, conspirators and other lawbreakers.

Becky and Sandra aren't the best of friends. Sandra is a middle-aged manager at a fast-food restaurant; Becky is a teenaged counter girl who really ...

Rating: R for language and sexual content/nudity

Length: 90 minutes

Released: August 17, 2012 NY

Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger

Director: Craig Zobel

Writer: Craig Zobel

More info and showtimes »

A phone caller who identifies himself as "Officer Daniels" delivers what may be the movie's key line. "Can I count on you to assist the authorities?" he asks dowdy, middle-age Sandra (an Oscar-worthy Ann Dowd), a fast-food restaurant manager. "I'm just trying to do my job," Sandra explains later, in another significant remark.

A 2012 Sundance premiere and the second feature from writer-director Craig Zobel (whose debut, "Great World of Sound," screened at the 2007 Indie Memphis Film Festival), "Compliance" is a remarkably faithful dramatization of a shocking incident at a Kentucky McDonald's, here moved to a fictional "ChickWich" in Ohio.

The story takes place over several hours in a single day at the restaurant, where pretty young blond cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) is accused of theft by the supposed police detective (Pat Healy) on the phone. The increasingly outrageous, even sordid drama that takes place in a backroom, where Sandra and other employees struggle to comprehend and understand Officer Daniels' accusations and orders, offers a dark contrast to the light socializing taking place in the restaurant's so-called dining room, where the patrons are unaware of their proximity to not just well-intentioned compliance but also criminal complicity.

As a metaphor for the fascism of the workplace, the abuses that too often accompany a profit-based corporate system and the willingness of "normal" people to participate in cruelty that has been sanctioned by a supposedly responsible authority figure (as demonstrated in various psychology experiments, not to mention Nazi Germany), "Compliance" is hard to beat. Yet, somehow, I didn't buy Zobel's wonderfully acted, elegantly photographed movie. However true to their real-life models they may be, the people here seem too clueless to be convincing.

The movie's insistence on its own seriousness is depressing; its skillfully constructed scene-setting montages, its fraught, gliding camera moves and attractive compositions seem judgmental, suggesting the filmmakers are superior — more sensitive, certainly — than the characters. Perhaps only Roman Polanski (whose recent "Carnage" told a similar tale of increasingly demented behavior within a confined, familiar space) could have found the right balance between moral outrage and sardonic satire that the material requires. As it is, I kept thinking that the real-life McDonald's case would make a fabulous Errol Morris documentary. Transforming the story into a drama seems to have reduced its significance.

My opinion is in the minority. The movie, for the most part, has been enthusiastically praised by critics. Certainly, Zobel is a smart filmmaker, as he demonstrates during a long take in which the camera follows Sandra to her car. The scene may seem like a waste of time, but it's revealing: It shows that Sandra is the type of employee who obediently parks, per company policy, as far from the entrance as possible, so as not to inconvenience any paying customers. Becky, meanwhile, blithely and disobediently parks near the front door; no wonder she deserves to be punished.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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