In a compelling and uncomfortable drama, director Craig Zobel uses an almost unbelievable true story to ask one of the most important questions that faces people in their day to day lives; how far would a person go to please an authority figure? To this end, Compliance offers one of the toughest, most insistent films this year.
The events on which the film is based, most notoriously in 2004, involves a prank caller phoning a fast food restaurant pretending to be a police officer, and instructing the manager to conduct degrading, and eventually criminal, acts against a young employee under the guise of an investigation. This may seem implausible, but Zobel’s message at the beginning of the film that what is to be seen is based on true events looms large to further illustrate the uncomfortable nature of what is to come.
The film opens on high-strung manager Sandra, played brilliantly by Ann Dowd, who is already facing a stressful day after the restaurant’s freezer was left open overnight, resulting in $1500 worth of food going to waste. As her day continues, the rest of the staff are introduced, and it is seen how despite her relatively warm exterior, Sandra is riddled with resentments towards her younger staff in particular. It is at this point that a phone call comes in, accusing Becky (played by Dreama Walker) of stealing money from a customer. What follows is a serious of shameful acts committed against Becky all in the name of serving the voice of authority on the end of a phone.
Compliance has already caused controversy, resulting in numerous walk outs (including at Sundance). However, this is an example of the power that this film has at so effectively illustrating the common tendency to give in to authority with very little resistance. The reason that audiences have walked out may be that the film asks too many uncomfortable questions of them, a fact that is to be commended.
Early on, the identity of the caller is revealed not to be a police officer, but just a man in his house, seemingly going about his daily life. Pat Healy’s performance as ‘Officer’ Daniels is relaxed, poised and almost humored. Healy resists a conventional persona seeking sexual gratification in place of a relaxed, and controlling figure seeking more entertainment than perverse satisfaction. Whilst the opening scenes are effective in having the character as only a voice on the phone, the revelation of Daniels as a normal, perhaps even bored, individual make his character all the more distasteful.
However, it is Ann Dowd’s performance that exemplifies the central conflict of the film. As Sandra’s busy Friday service becomes all the more hectic, particularly with Becky confined to the office, her situation becomes more difficult. Dowd’s ability to make what could be an unsympathetic character the exact opposite is the key to Compliance’s ability to tap into the psyche of the masses. Her actions, whilst questionable are however completely understandable, as she is torn between her duties and civil responsibilities, and her conscience.
In fact, all of the film’s performances tap into this increasingly rare vein of authenticity. Each character seems to represent a different representation of how one would react to this situation, from Philip Ettinger’s Kevin who is against the entire scenario, to Ashlie Atkinson’s supervisor trying to hold everything together. Dreama Walker’s performance as Becky, the victim of the hoax, is brave and effective, spending most of the film in a state of nudity, which is rarely sexualised and instead just as degrading as it should be.
Craig Zobel’s close and detailed direction, with numerous close ups of fried food and dirty kitchen areas, creates a grubby, unpleasant setting to accompany the drama. Similarly, Heather McIntosh’s thumping, dramatic score further emphasises the emotionally draining, and uncomfortable, nature of the film’s content.
Whilst some may gawp at how far the narrative is permitted to go, as Becky and Sandra’s positions become more unbelievable, the truthful origin of Compliance is never to be forgotten, particularly with the final credit stating that 70 similar cases have been reported in America. The result then is one that forces the audience to not only question the characters on screen, but more importantly, themselves. It may not be an enjoyable experience, but Compliance does not have this aim, instead seeking a more lasting and important purpose; to ask the question: what would you do?
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