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By Philip Martin

This article was published October 19, 2012 at 3:47 a.m.

Becky (Dreama Walker) is unjustly accused and detained in Craig Zobel’s button-pushing drama Compliance, which is based on an actual incident.

— Compliance

86 Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp Director: Craig Zobel Rating: R, for language, sexual content and nudity Running time: 90 minutes

A lot of people won’t like Craig Zobel’s Compliance — and I’m not sure I’m not one of them.

I admire the workings of the movie, in the same cool way I might regard a machine gun as a work of art, and I think that Ann Dowd’s performance is one of the best of the year. I can’t think of any recent film that sustains suspense as well and as long as Compliance, or of any screenplay that worked with such oily precision. I am almost required to call it a good movie.

Yet it wasn’t pleasant to sit through, and had I no professional obligation, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have joined the many — at the Sundance Film Festival and at other venues around the country — who have walked out on the film. Not because it offended me, or because I think that Zobel or any of the actors have committed any crimes against decorum or decency, but simply because I’m not sure I want to think about how awful ordinarily decent people can be. I know we are all capable of cruelty — I know the Holocaust happened. If I want to see casual cruelty, I can sign onto Twitter or Facebook or check the comments section of any reasonably popular blog. I am around people all the time; I know how terrible they are.

Still, Compliance is a film that is based on actual events, and it hews pretty closely to the agreed-on facts. The kids who work in fast-food restaurants can be pretty much like the kids depicted here — earnest and easily intimidated by anyone who pretends to authority. The adults who allegedly supervise these children can be insecure folks who, when given the opportunity and sufficient moral cover, can turn into bullies. And there are sick people who enjoy setting human beings against one another merely for purposes of their own amusement. There are systems that are rife for exploitation.

No one who watches Compliance is likely to empathize with any of the characters; they are all too “something” — be it timid, meek, cowardly, stupid, lecherous or cruel — for any of us to identify with. None of us would act as they did in these circumstances; we’re all too sharp and brave (and good) to commit such atrocities.

And yet, this happened. Pretty much in the way the movie portrays it.

What Compliance is about is a night in an Ohio fast-food restaurant. The manager, Sandra (Dowd), a middle-aged woman who seems to have a dim sense that her life is not working out as she had hoped, gets a call from a man that the audience (from the very beginning) understands has bad intent.

The man tells Sandra he is a police officer calling on official business. One of her employees, the prettiest one, Becky (Dreama Walker, of the TV series Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23), has stolen money. She took it from a customer’s purse. It is Sandra’s duty to detain Becky, to take her into the office, to stripsearch her and hold her until the police arrive.

Um, OK.

Sandra, of course, complies. After all, it is the police. She could get in trouble. If Becky is innocent it will all be sorted out in the end.

Things get worse for Becky very quickly. Sandra’s boyfriend gets involved. It’s all very ugly.

It’s all very sad. And it’s all (essentially) true.

Good thing it can’t happen here.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/19/2012

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