Forgive me a digression.
In financial services firms, Compliance is the unglamorous but important department that makes sure people follow the firm’s policies. One is aimed at preventing “social engineering”: not, as you might think, checking the viral spread of welfarism across the institution, but rather stopping the systematic theft of commercially sensitive information, carried out in plain sight, by malfeasors who cold-call gullible employees and trick them into volunteering it.
You’d be amazed how easily investment professionals can be suckered. Actually, probably, you wouldn’t.
But it’s not just investment professionals who can be duped, as Craig Zobel’s hair-raising new film makes clear. It hasn’t got anything to do with financial services, much less compliance departments, but it has a lot to do with social engineering. Only in this case, it takes place in an Ohio fast food joint, and it takes a much nastier form.
The first thing to say is how well Compliance conveys, in its opening scenes, the deplorable misery of unskilled labour: Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages a busy ChickWich outlet. She’s short-handed on the shift, she’s expecting an undercover visit from franchise quality control goons, some clot left the freezer open last night, spoiling thousands of dollars of food, and to cap it all off, she’s badly low on gherkins.
These are monstrous stresses compared with the pittance Sandra is paid. The last thing she needs is for a cop (Pat Healy) to call, reporting a customer’s allegation of theft against an employee.
If Sandra is powerless and vulnerable, she’s got nothing on Becky (Dreama Walker), a pretty, 19 year old tillhand. Sandra’s countenance cannot conceal her resentment of Becky’s vitality, which fuels her suspicion that it was Becky who left the freezer open. Sandra is already susceptible to the suggestion that Becky needs firing, and this is grist to the mill.
Thus begins the “compliance”: anxious not to exacerbate an already lousy day, Sandra does Officer Daniels’ bidding, and ensures, when he asks for it, that others do too. As befits unenfranchised employees, they all do as they are told, including Becky, who is hauled into a back room and interrogated. Officer Daniels stays on the line and takes a perverse interest in proceedings. Becky denies everything. Well, you would, wouldn’t you.
Officer Daniels’ behaviour grows more eccentric. We realise that this is a crank call but, like a frog in slowly heating water, Sandra never does.
So commences the second act, an unbroken sequence of unspeakable acts which it would be wrong to reveal, as this comprises a large part of the film’s emotional impact. It is not comfortable viewing. Much credit is due to Craig Zobel and his editing team for the technical achievement of building and maintaining an unbearable tension for more than an hour.
As a straight piece of drama, though, the film is less successful. This is a cautionary tale, not a morality play: necessarily, the usual narrative arc is absent. There is a villain, but he is not explained. There is no hero, only victims, and they do not have flaws to overcome which justify their fate. They’re gullible, but within a standard deviation of the norm: that’s what gives Compliance its power.
There is therefore no challenge to overcome or lesson to learn. These are people without sin, who do not (wittingly) cast stones, yet a stoning nonetheless goes on. It is difficult to know what to take from that: Craig Zobel achieves a valuable social commentary, but not a dramatic one.
That’s another way of saying that Compliance is a downer from beginning to end, and while it may leave viewers scratching their chins as they leave the theatre, they’ll think twice before doing what a policeman asks in future.
Director: Craig Zobel
Stars: Ann Dowd, Pat Healy, Dreama Walker, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger
Running Time: 90 minutes