Director Craig Zobel doesn’t look like the kind of man capable of making a movie so disturbing and uncomfortable that it would drive people from the theater. He’s lanky, sweet and unassuming. Hell, he was a co-founder of millennial Flash sensation Homestar Runner! But at last night’s Psychology Today and Peggy Siegal Company screening of Mr. Zobel’s latest film at the IFC Center, Compliance, all that seemed secondary.
No fewer than eight people walked out. One woman across the aisle from us shouted, “Give me a fucking break! This is a fucking joke!” before indignantly slinging her tote bag over an irate shoulder and storming out.
During Compliance’s grueling 90 minutes, Becky, a 19-year-old “Chick-Wich” fast food worker is stripped nude, debased for hours, and ultimately sexually assaulted. It’s a lot to deal with. Folks laughed incredulously and shifted uncomfortably in their seats, all of which was in keeping with Compliance’s tense Sundance reception. Pre-screening, Mr. Zobel told us, “I was very scared about the movie, I think as much as an actor who would want to do any of the roles. It did not come easy to me, but I felt like there was so much to talk about.”
The film is based on a real string of scam calls made to fast food restaurants across the country. A caller posing as a police officer directed managers to strip-search employees suspected of theft. Most directly the film draws on one such incident in Kentucky.
The Observer couldn’t imagine a more horrifying summer job experience than what we witnessed onscreen, so we probed Todd Oldham to name his worst summer gig, expecting a suburban yarn about mowing lawns for some crotchety neighbor in his native Texas. “I worked at a Pizza Hut in 10th grade,” he said. “I got held up at gunpoint and locked in the freezer. I think that’s the worst.” Well-played, Mr. Oldham.
Smash star Savannah Wise told us, “My first job was Les Mis on Broadway, but my first gig for the summer was working at a jazz festival, serving alligator sausage. I was their top seller. I was like 12 or 13, and I was like, ‘Heyyyyyy!’” She went on, “People don’t trust alligator sausage.”
Stumbling shell-shocked out of the theater after the screening and a brief panel discussion between Psychology Today bigwigs, we were delighted to run in to Chris Matthews. The Hardball host, in attendance with his son (The Newsroom’s Thomas Matthews) was positively animated. “It drove me crazy that those people kept [taking orders from the prank caller]. Don’t people have any inner direction? Is everybody other-directed? They do what everybody else does. They think that’s objective reality! Nobody just says ‘No!’”
He went on, “I love it when people stand up to that kind of presumed authority. The movie reminded me of the war in Iraq, how the neo-cons got us into it. Just think about how it was done. ‘Oh, they have weapons of mass destruction, we have to go to war.’ It’s so much like this film!”
We caught up again with a slightly shaken Ms. Wise outside under the marquee. “It wouldn’t be a movie that I would suggest to many people,” she told us.
She continued, noting the film’s great irony: “Everybody found it very uncomfortable, but everybody stayed and watched it anyway. What does that say about how we feel socially about authority?”
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