Realism slides into a nightmare scenarioMovies
Dreama Walker plays Becky. Photo: Magnolia Pictures
THERE'S not a drop of blood in this creepy ''true story'', but it counts as a horror movie all the same, splitting the difference between Michael Haneke and Stephen King.
The plot unfolds over the course of a single night, at a fast food restaurant somewhere in middle America. The early scenes suggest that Sandra (Ann Dowd), the shift manager, has a friendly, informal relationship with her much younger subordinates, though they giggle behind her back when she talks about ''sexting''.
One of these giggling girls is 19-year-old Becky - played by Dreama Walker, best known as Krysten Ritter's straight woman in the zany sitcom Don't Trust The B---- In Apartment 23.
During the busiest period of the evening, Sandra receives a surprise phone call from a stranger who introduces himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) and accuses Becky of stealing from a customer.
Though the outraged Becky claims to be innocent, she's confined to a back room to await the arrival of the police. Gradually it becomes clear that all is not as it seems, and Sandra and other characters are faced with a demanding test of personal integrity.
Using mainly handheld camerawork, writer-director Craig Zobel and his cinematographer Adam Stone modulate from pseudo-documentary realism to something more distorted and oppressive, with faces half-hidden in shadow, oil bubbling alarmingly in a deep fryer, and shots framed through looming, out-of-focus shelves.
Is Compliance a high-minded fable, or a sleazy piece of exploitation? It seems possible that Zobel himself isn't sure what drew him to this material. Certainly, the film is rich enough to sustain multiple interpretations. It could be understood as a comment on the Abu Ghraib photos, on modern America, or on the way capitalism in general turns people into parts of a machine.
Alternately, it could simply be saying that sadism is basic to human nature - that ''nice'' people can easily perform evil actions impelled by suppressed feelings of lust or resentment.
On yet another level it's a film about acting and ad-libbing: once a scenario is set in motion, both oppressors and victims can find themselves helplessly playing along.
Working at a fast food counter is a bit like being on stage, and the unassuming Dowd proves especially good at switching between personas - warm, chilly, or professional - while making us feel that she's always ''sincere''.