Like antidepressants, artificial sugars, Botox and other miracle inventions of the past century, corporate culture became an omnipresent fact of life before anyone could know how it would affect the human body and brain on an extended timeline. One way to look at writer-director Craig Zobel's second feature, Compliance — a pot-stirrer at January's Sundance Film Festival, opening in L.A. this week — is as a kind of psychological horror-movie exploration of how the basic human instinct to look to people in power positions for behavioral cues is fatally amplified in environments in which adherence to policy trumps rational thought.

“When you hear about the banks and all these different groups that are not doing a good job self-policing, you're, like: 'Well, no fucking shit. Of course they're not,' ” says Zobel, his lanky frame folded into a wrought iron café chair in Hollywood on a Friday afternoon in July. “We wouldn't have invented an authority-figure system the way we did if we thought everyone was gonna be really good at self-policing. You give them authority to make decisions and police things for you, and you assume that they'll be OK and self-police themselves. It's actually a passive agreement that you make: I will obey you as long as I trust that you're gonna be cool.”

Compliance is about what happens when that trust in authority is abused.

The movie takes place at fictional middle-American fast-food joint ChickWich over the course of a single shift. Each worker's relationship to one another is swiftly outlined through a few seemingly mundane introductory exchanges. We meet Sandra (Ann Dowd), the frumpy, 40-something manager, as she's trying to smooth over a bacon shortage (an unknown underling left the freezer open overnight) without raising the alarms of her own corporate supervisor. Sandra's crew includes the good-natured but spacey young dude Kevin (Philip Ettinger), butch shift manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), and the girl both seem to be infatuated with, nubile, blond cashier Becky (Dreama Walker).

Just as the dinner shift is ramping up, Sandra receives a phone call from a man (Pat Healy, who starred in Zobel's first feature, 2007's Great World of Sound) purporting to be a police officer investigating Becky for stealing from a customer's purse. The caller, who tells Sandra that he has been in touch with ChickWich corporate, asks Sandra to take Becky into the back office to strip-search and detain her while he stays on the line to direct the interrogation. Clearly terrified of a reprimand from above, Sandra does what she's told.

Spoiler alert! The self-proclaimed cop is not really a cop; he's a prank caller banking on two things: that a fast-food employee will have a scant understanding of how the police work and that her reflexive response to an order from a perceived authority figure will be to comply without complaint. On both counts, he finds his ideal mark in Sandra. When Sandra eventually has to relieve her overburdened counter staff, the prank caller tells her she needs to find a male to supervise the still-naked alleged thief, and Sandra calls in her fiancé, Van (Bill Camp). Soon this “supervision” escalates to sexual assault.

Compliance is modeled after an incident that took place at a McDonald's in 2004, which bore a resemblance to more than 70 similar cases recorded over the previous decade. (The calls stopped after a Florida man was arrested. He was ultimately tried and acquitted.)

Zobel mentally filed the calls alongside a number of testaments to human response, including the Milgram experiments, Robert Cialdini's studies in the psychology of getting people to say “yes,” and the tragic murder of Kitty Genovese, witnessed by 38 people who failed to intervene or call the police. Psychologists later nicknamed the phenomenon of bystanders ignoring cues to action “Genovese Syndrome.” It's something many of the characters in Compliance are afflicted with; though most of the staff seem to know that one of their own is being held, naked, in the restaurant's back room, the matter, as one counter girl puts it, “falls under shit that ain't none of my business.”

“The Kitty Genovese case and the prank calls — people just do these things,” Zobel marvels. The script began as a writing exercise, to see if he could reconstruct such events from a psychological perspective, based on the scant information available to him via news reports and transcripts of court opinions. “If I know that all these events happened, what were all the words that people said to each other that got it from A to B? And can I put myself in a place where I understand how to do this? Are there things I recognize as being human things that we all fall into?”

The resulting script is a marvel of clockworklike economy, in which every line of dialogue seems absolutely necessary, with Zobel infusing even thrown-off small talk with character-defining context. In one early scene, Becky, worried that she'll be blamed for the freezer incident, frets, “I just can't be not having a job right now.” She then shows off her just-purchased cellphone cover (“I decided pink was going to be my new thing now”) and mentions a text exchange with a new suitor. “He keeps sending me pictures of him without a shirt on and asking me to, like, return the favor.”

In a few lines, Zobel establishes that Becky is afraid to lose her job and not exactly forward-thinking enough to be saving in case she does; more importantly for Compliance's story, she's also accustomed to being sexually coaxed by someone on the other end of a phone. This makes her predicament that much sadder — as she says near the end of the film, “I just knew it was going to happen.”

In her resignation to her station, Becky is very much a product of her time. The film functions as a reflection of any number of American ills of the moment: contemporary class warfare, educational failure, the hopelessness of the job market, the weird disenfranchising of women. The latter, in particular, hits a nerve.

“I have had so many interesting conversations with women at screenings of the movie, having people come up and say, 'Your movie rocked me,' ” Zobel says. “They connected in some way to feeling sexually exploited. It's much more prevalent even than I guessed.”

At its Sundance premiere, Compliance was criticized by at least one vocal audience member for plumbing sexual abuse for “entertainment.” But there's a difference between a film about exploitation and an exploitative movie. Walker, while mostly nude for much of her screen time, is hardly ogled by the camera. Zobel suggests the extremities of her degradation rather than explicitly fetishizing them, making the viewer feel as helpless as the victim rather than encouraging the audience to get off on her humiliation.

Zobel looked to an intriguing hodgepodge of films as aesthetic and tonal guides, from Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to '60s subway-hostage drama The Incident to the art-house cinema of psychological implication of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. “I almost felt like that was the genre, like, 'What am I doing that's different from them?' ” Zobel admits. Haneke, he says, “is clearly a very, very sophisticated filmmaker, but sometimes I feel that the objectivity that comes out of his movies; there's a coldness, a judgment that I hoped I avoid. I hoped that I was making something that had more faith in humanity. Because I don't think that we're all bad and terrible. I don't hate people.

“I just felt, this is a strange conversation that needs to be had,” Zobel adds. “It is hard to imagine that these things can exist. That's why I made a movie about it.”

COMPLIANCE | Written and directed by Craig Zobel | Magnolia Pictures | Nuart

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