Not everyone will make it to the end of Craig Zobel’s Compliance, a frustratingly brilliant film that holds a mirror up to the audience as it explores and exploits two contradictions in human nature: our desire to deceive, and our willingness to believe.
With a refreshing eye for getting the facts straight, Compliance tells the true story of a prank call that escalated into a serious crime. In 2004, a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy; The Innkeepers) calls a busy fast food restaurant, and has the manager (Ann Dowd; The Informant!) drag her employee (Dreama Walker; Gran Torino) into the back room on the accusation of stealing from a customer. At first, all of his commands sound convincing enough, but it’s not long before we realise these women are being horribly manipulated by a careless prankster, whose demands becoming increasingly more personal and perverted.
By design, Compliance can be infuriating to watch; I had to repeatedly fight the urge to shout aloud at the cluelessness of these characters as they blindly continue to obey the instructions of a madman. Usually, this reaction constitutes poor screenwriting or weak characters, but some simple research into the true events the film is based on reveals that Zobel is surprisingly accurate with all the key details, which is telling of the tendency we have to forgo our better judgement and simply submit to authority. It’s easy to think you’d react more intelligently given the same situation, but if you were a duty manager of a fast food chain, would you risk challenging the law? And if you were the accused employee, fearing the loss of employment and at risk of incarceration, how far would you go to prove your innocence?
Ann Dowd’s performance as the unwitting manager is truly standout; despite the frustrating naivety of her character, she never fails to convince. Likewise, Dreama Walker’s portrayal of the woman accused shows impressive restraint, avoiding the common tendency to overact when actors perform frighteningly intense scenes.
On a technical level, Compliance is endlessly inventive within a limited setting. Zobel often uses long, sustained takes in between major dialogue scenes, gliding along with a strange, dreamlike aura — which is fitting given the harrowing “Is this really happening?” vibe of the situation.
The fact that it did happen, and reportedly happened many times before, is what gives Zobel’s film its power. Without casting judgement, Compliance speaks loud and clear of our tendency to cave to authority, and so long as you can tolerate the frustration it fosters, it’s hard not to appreciate such intelligent provocation.