Sundance Interview and Review: Craig Zobel’s Compliance


In 2007, Craig Zobel came to the Sundance Film Festival with his indie Great World of Sound, a small character story taking place in the world of indie record production, after having worked with David Gordon Green on many of his early indie movies. This year, he returns to Sundance with Compliance, a very different film, firstly because it delves into the thriller genre, but also because it’s based on actual events. It stars Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker (“Gossip Girl”) as the manager and counter girl of a small fast food restaurant whose relationship is changed when a police officer calls accusing the latter of stealing from a customer. Over the next few hours, they’re put through a rigorous test to see how far they will go in following the instructions of the man on the line, played by Pat Healy, star of Great World of Sound, this time playing a far more menacing character that reminded us of what Kiefer Sutherland did in Phone Booth. had a chance to talk briefly with Zobel and his cast at the Sundance Film Festival. We’ll begin with Zobel and his previous collaborator Pat Healy talking about the process of making this tense film which is pulled straight from the headlines. Director Craig Zobel and Pat Healy

Dreama Walker and Ann Dowd

Next, we have his two actresses who are put through all the intense things required for telling this story. Ann Dowd is a character actor who you probably have seen on television or on stage or in the movies–she also co-stars in the raunchy comedy Bachelorette, which premierred at this year’s Sundance–while Dreama Walker is best known for her stint on the hit show “Gossip Girl.”

Compliance hasn’t been picked up for distribution as of this writing, but here’s our review of the movie:

Compliance Written and directed by Craig Zobel
Starring Anne Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy
Rating: 7/10

Five years ago, Craig Zobel brought his low-budget “Great World of Sound” to Sundance, and to say that “Compliance” is a different kind of movie would be a huge understatement.

Opening at a fast food restaurant in a small suburban area, we see the same inter-personnel dynamics anyone who’s worked at a fast food place will immediately recognize. Sandra the manager (Ann Dowd) is always doing everything by the books, while Becky (Dreama Walker) is the teen countergirl also trying to do her job but whom doesn’t take it nearly as seriously. When a police officer calls the restaurant accusing Becky of stealing money from a customer, which she denies, Sandra follows all his instructions to get to the bottom of what happened. She locks the scared teen in her office and strip-searches her looking for the stolen money, but that’s only the beginning.

Like the best thrillers, “Compliance” is not a movie meant to be enjoyed comfortably, instead keeping you on edge as you watch the increasingly disturbing events unfold. Many times you may find yourself shaking your head, wondering how something like this might happen and things get even more uncomfortable as you realize how far the man on the phone will push and test whomever gets on the phone with him.

The intense drama that comes from this situation might not have worked so well if not for the great cast Zobel brought together, including Dowd, a terrific character actress on par with Frances McDormand, who we’re surprised we haven’t noticed in more movies. She brings just the right amount of uncertain authority that you can believe she would believe the caller over her own employee, while Dreama Walker is equally talented in playing up the confusion and fear of this young girl forced to endure humiliation and worse. Pat Healy, who was so terrific in “Great World of Sound,” adds to the contrast between Zobel’s films by playing a character who is as sleazy and manipulative as his previous character was likeable, and he really sells this guy whose deplorable actions seem to have no clear motive.

Zobel finds creative ways of keeping things visually interesting, creating the illusion of higher production values despite it mostly taking place in a single room with only two or three actors at any given time. It starts out fairly naturalistic, almost fly-on-the-wall, then transitions into something more stylistic and cinematic, giving us a better impression of Zobel’s skills as a director than his earlier film. This leads to the use of more traditional scoring to help create tension as it goes along, but also to a few odd artistic choices like having an extended shot of a character we hadn’t yet met driving in a car.

The film certainly is thought-provoking, particularly indicting on how authority is abused and how easy it is for people to be manipulated when they think they’re following instructions from someone higher on the food chain. The epilogue to the story is also an interesting way to wrap things up, since it keeps the filmmaker’s intentions vague and allows the viewer to form their own opinion of why the characters do what they do.

“Compliance” is a movie that’s not entirely pleasurable to watch since many of the situations deliberately push our buttons between what’s right and wrong and what we might do in a similar situation, but as disturbing as it is, it’s even moreso when you realize it’s based on true events.

(If you don’t believe that any of this could possibly happen, check out this in-depth report in the Courier Journal, although be warned it could potentially spoil some of the major turns in Zobel’s film.)