Engrossing, uncomfortable and infuriating, director Craig Zobel’s psychological thriller Compliance encompasses an idiosyncratic mix of characteristics. It is a push-pull movie and one unlikely to leave anyone who’s seen without a strong emotional response to the events depicted.
Those events happen to be based on true stories from the US, but the facts only serve to heighten the incredulity that audiences will come to experience. In essence this is about a sinister prank call made to a fast-food joint from a man posing as police officer Daniels (Healy). He tells the manageress Sandra (Dowd) that a young female employee, Becky (Walker), has stolen money from a customer’s purse. He adds that because he’s involved in a bigger case regarding Becky he can’t get to the restaurant himself and that Sandra and her team will have to stay on the line and help him with the investigation.
The setup ensures that Becky is portrayed as a slacker, more at home texting multiple boyfriends, shirking work and hanging out with the jokers than respecting her boss, the harassed Sandra. What unfolds over the course of a (unnecessarily) long phone call explores how unquestioning society can be of authority figures and also people’s failure to trust their own instincts, even when they know they are doing something bad.
Office Daniels’ requests of Sandra and her staff become increasingly bizarre, invasive and twisted but, with few exceptions, all that he asks for down that phone line is carried out. Becky is subjected to emotional and physical torment as her “captors” fail to prevent themselves stepping over the line of decent, honorable behaviour.
Compliance takes the preconceptions people have of each other, what we think we know about our colleagues and friends, and reveals how quickly we might be ready to act on those stereotypes. Despite that, or even because of it, the film has a middle section that will make for extremely hard viewing. It is likely that the majority of audiences will be disbelieving of what these characters stoop to in the support of the law. But, this is based on real events, remember?
Zobel’s camerawork is often subtle and clever, with shifts in composition helping to ensure Becky is shown as a small character in the spotlight of authority. And while she is held there in the storeroom, he uses an assortment of cutaways to evoke the mood out front: a busy restaurant full of people unaware of what’s going on. It’s a superb juxtaposition of the unknowing customers with the blind stupidity and obedience of the staff.
But that uncomfortable feeling as you watch just won’t go away, and it creates a sense that maybe the film is dwelling too long in these dark territories. It’s never voyeuristic but, surely, once the point is made isn’t it time to move on, show something different, tackle another aspect?
After the build up of tension, the release that does come is neat and tidy, too fast, in fact. The concluding section plays out like a police procedural and introduces new characters who have no time to do anything but deliver exposition. And after taking the time to show us how far people’s blind obedience will take them, why not use that final third to see how they cope with the effects of what they’ve been complicit in?
Compliance is a challenging piece of filmmaking with effective lead performances and a desire to make you think but it is hard to accept as entertainment – even with the suggestion that it can provide a salutary lesson in not always respecting authority.