Facing up to flawed judgment
Compliance star Ann Dowd plays Sandra, a restaurant manager forced to deal with accusations against a staff member. Photo: Magnolia Pictures
THE film Compliance is based on a true story, a claustrophobic and unsettling account of human nature and its capacities that has had a strong, sometimes polarising impact on audiences since it was first screened at Sundance last year.
It is set in a fast food restaurant in a small American town, on a day very much like any other. The middle-aged manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), has already had to deal with a couple of unresolved problems before she takes a call from a police officer with an allegation about one of her employees. How she chooses to deal with it - and what happens as other people become involved - is the unnerving heart of the movie. To go into too much detail would be to risk undermining the film's slow-build effect.
Writer-director Craig Zobel became aware of the events on which the film is based, through reading about the famous Milgram experiments of the early 1960s, which explored people's responses to instructions from authority figures. He came across this story, the basis of Compliance, and one of the things that fascinated him was the process of rationalisation that followed. He says, ''it was a revealing and fascinating story that I could not stop thinking about once I had started.''
Compliance director Craig Zobel.
It wasn't an easy film to cast, he says. It was a low-budget movie, but he wasn't looking, in any case, for well-known faces who might look out of place behind a fast-food counter. He wanted actors who he felt would have the ''right spirit'' for the roles. Finding them involved talking to them about the story, and seeing if there were aspects of the characters or situation they could identify with.
''What was interesting about that story,'' he says, ''was that a bunch of people were talked into doing things they would normally never ever think they were capable of doing. So you should be able to watch it and have some empathy for Sandra'' - whatever you might think of her judgment, or lack thereof. Dowd's performance has been singled out; she won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actress.
Sandra takes the accused employee to a back room at the restaurant, as she is told by the police officer, and events begin to unfold. For Zobel, there were challenges involved in the choices he made about these aspects of the narrative. ''It was incredibly difficult to decide how to depict the scenes that turned towards the darker elements of the story. I talked a lot with the actors, and with my other collaborators. I proposed things, asked how they would be interpreted by my teammates.''
In the end, he says, the decisions were his, and he had to follow his instincts, but, he adds, ''I thought it should feel as uncomfortable as it must've been in that room, just put us in there and realise how insane it was that these types of things got this far.''
There were some challenges he was able to enjoy whole-heartedly. ''Considering how dark this movie is, it feels weird to admit that the fast food restaurant was a blast to design,'' he says. He tried to think like a marketing person. He and designer Matt Munn made trips ''to every fast food restaurant we could find and critiqued their menus, their colour schemes, their wardrobes, their food item names'' to help devise the fictional ChickWich chain.
Compliance opens on January 17 at the Cinema Nova, Carlton.