Inspired by true events, Compliance tells the tale of teenage Becky (Dreama Walker), a fast food worker accused of stealing money from a customer. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) did not see the theft, and is not likely to believe Becky when she is on the phone with Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who claims that he has the customer in his office describing Becky perfectly. Daniels asks Sandra to bring her to the back, and assist him over the phone with the search for the missing money since he, nor any other officer, is available to come to the store.
What follows might not be what you expect, unless you know the controversial true story the film is based on. And even then, it may not prepare you for what writer/director Craig Zobel has concocted. True to the news and opinions of the filmgoers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compliance is wildly outrageous, offensive and audacious. The film clocks in at ninety minutes, but feels so much longer. Zobel manages to pack in as much information as he can, in as confined a space as he can, from beginning to end.
The timeline of the film is never made clear, but it feels like what we are seeing goes on for hours on end. And the phone call that sets the whole story up comes within the first ten minutes. It makes for a viewing experience that is frequently sickening, and downright abhorrent in some instances. A handful of people actually walked out when I saw the film. In some cases, it almost feels like a test of endurance with Zobel asking us to accept what is happening on-screen and the audience sitting there, unable to do anything, much like Walker’s character herself. The piercing score, which haunts almost at random, is also effective in ensuring that feeling of helplessness.
Performances are uniformly well done, albeit with no real standouts. Healy is effectively creepy, but never gets the opportunity to really explore his character. The same can be said for Dowd and Walker, who spend most of the movie in an almost brainwashed state, following the directions of the caller and simply going through with them. Their mixed emotions shine through in certain cases, but I found myself practically yelling at them more often than not because of how clueless and dazed they looked. I blame the script more than the actors for this fault though, because much like Healy, they are never afforded to deviate and really bring something to the film.
I feel the biggest complaint against Compliance, for all of the outrage and offense it has and will continue to cause, is that there is not much to it. Zobel makes the film so authentic and close to the actual true story that he actually manages to scrub the film of any form of personality. There is little to no story – just a film forcibly asking questions about morality.
The characters are set-up with the bare minimum of information, and then spend the rest of the film acting out various levels of coercion and outrage. It barely leaves room for any of the characters to question what they are doing, and even less to actually develop. Whether this is an agenda pushing move, or simply Zobel’s way of presenting just the facts, is unclear.
I understand the realism he is striving for, but he has no form of objectivity in presenting what is practically documented fact. Instead, he makes it a bit too obvious how he feels about the real people involved in the event and never lets anyone else come to their own conclusions. Not once did I feel any connection to any of the characters. I felt for Walker’s character near the end of the film, but only because I knew this actually happened to multiple young women, not because Zobel took the time to make me feel some form of pathos.
In the end, it seems that the film is more of a statement than it is a piece of entertainment. There is absolutely nothing to enjoy or be entertained by within Compliance.
So, as a film, it fails. But I was shocked on multiple occasions, and it was plainly obvious to see that many people were outraged in the theatre. If not for their noticeable reactions, for the continuous shifting and squirming in their seats. So, as a dramatization, Zobel’s film more than succeeds. It is a bit of a slippery slope, but one that I am sure he intended to incite from the moment he wrote the film.
Compliance is not easy to watch, but it is important. I just think Zobel could have given me a better reason to care by the end.