Craig Zobel’s film Compliance is based on true events, and goes to great pains to underline that fact before the story unfurls. Great towering letters the size of the screen. It also boldly states that nothing has been exaggerated. As the next 90 minutes pass, the audience is repeatedly asked to question the credulity of this.
We’re at a branch of ChickWich (in reality a McDonald’s, but names and places changed to protect yada-yada-yada). Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) is having a bad day. The freezer was left open overnight, spoiling a large quantity of produce. Add to that the prospect of a mystery shopper on a busy Friday night and a staffing shortage, and it’s easy to understand that the pressure to perform appropriately is on. On top of this comes a telephone call from a police officer named Daniels (Pat Healy). He’s calling to advise that young counter worker Becky (Dreama Walker) has been witnessed stealing from a customer’s purse and will need to be detained until the law can get there.
Except… Daniels can’t get there right away. He’s detained. So he in effect deputises Sandra to act in his place, requesting that she search Becky’s pockets and bags. Sandra complies. Then asking that Becky be strip-searched. Alarm bells ought to be ringing already, but by this point Sandra is prepared to act however Daniels instructs, after all he has the authority. It’s her responsibility to obey orders.
Except… Daniels is not who he claims to be.
Feel like I’m saying too much? I’m not. Compliance tips it’s hand from the beginning, giving the audience more knowledge than the characters. We are powerless to stop the events unfolding as by turn Sandra and her staff are pressed by this so-called authoritative voice into infringing on Becky’s rights all in the name of doing what you’re told. Only one staff member questions Daniels’ requests – he is promptly removed from the decision-making process. Daniels is smart; he empathises with his victims, even compliments them, whilst also instilling an aura of necessary command. Still, it’s horrifying to watch people abandon their own common sense just because someone else has made the decision already.
So, yes, Zobel’s uncomfortable reconstruction asks us to question how we respond to commands. Why we don’t question. But it also highlights the sadness of a person in Becky’s position. Whilst Sandra’s compliance with Daniels verges on the absurd, Becky acquiesces wearily to all of it. Sure, she contests things at first, but it’s surprising and unnerving to see how easily her will to refuse is broken. At the end of her ordeal when asked why she didn’t put up more of a fight, she simply says “I just knew it was going to happen”. Her youth and her social status have left her feeling defeated even before Daniels’ games have begun. It is this that Daniels manipulates so grotesquely. The powerlessness at the bottom of the class system.
Zobel’s film walks a dangerous high-wire. Set over the course of just a few hours in a confined setting, Compliance feels like a high-concept film (recalling most obviously the likes of Phone Booth) and suffers the natural limitations – character development is small, a sense of a wider world is lost due to the rigid focus. However, where most of its ilk are fiction pieces, Compliance is docu-drama reconstruction. Leading to the question at what point does a film about exploitation become an exploitation film?
Full credit to Dreama Walker (that name? seriously?) for taking on the particularly thankless role of Becky. What happens here is simply unpleasant, and Zobel only flinches from showing us a key few of Daniels’ requests being enacted, bringing us to the difficult point of how successful Compliance is. There’s no two ways about it, this is not an easy viewing experience. There were walk-outs at Cannes. There were walk-outs at the screening I went to. There were also audience jeers and laughter, as some either simply weren’t ready or weren’t inclined to take the story seriously. If nothing else, Compliance is effective in provoking an audience to react.
Trouble is, it’s just so thoroughly uncomfortable and tawdry. I’m no prude. I have a soft spot for exploitation films. If anything Compliance has made me question this a little. Remove the giggles and high-camp, as here, and you’re left with simply incredulous and unsavoury actions. This movie left me wanting to take a shower and clean my teeth. I needed to get it off of me.
Technically there’s little to fault. It’s a well-made film with believable performances from all involved. But it’s a sneaky one. Compliance will push you into asking exactly what it is you want from a movie like this. Where is the entertainment value? Should there be any? Are we happy to just sit in the dark for 90 minutes and get taught a lesson? A clunky final scene in which Sandra is interviewed underlines Zobel’s point a little too boldly. It’s heavy-handed. Congratulations, filmmaker, you’ve made us all feel a little bit worse for the evening. How do you rate that? How do you recommend it? A very tough sell.