Based on true events, Compliance tells the unsettling account of how far some people may go to obey an apparent authority figure. On a busy day in an average fast food joint, manager Sandra receives a phone call from a police officer accusing a young female employee of stealing money from a customer. Convinced she is duly following procedure Sandra commences with the step-by-step investigation on behalf of the caller no matter how invasive it becomes.
The characters in Compliance walk a blurry line between victim and perpetrator. Director Craig Zobel wisely refrains from brashly transforming his characters into knee jerk parodies or monsters. He rightfully induces a level of ugly and tense discomfort that warrants a fair amount of seat squirming or awkward laughter, but manages to achieve this without getting schlocky, instead simply utilizing the story’s biggest shock tactic, that of staggering blinkered obedience. It’s refreshing to have mere human flaws provide the real horror. Zobel subtly captures why fast-food chains were the prime target of the twisted hoaxer. The hierarchy in the service industry (particularly in the U.S mould) is drowned in petty rules alongside frustrated rank and file. Add to that minimal wages and the rigid environment inbreeds an unquestioning adherence to the powers that be. Emphasising a setting where monotone consistency is encouraged and individual instinct is frowned upon for risk of disruption leads to the situation being all the more plausible.
Ann Dowd gives a bittersweet and measured performance as the restaurant manager Sandra, who is front line of the hoaxer’s coercion, she by no means begs for empathy but is tactile enough to avoid being too demonised. Dreama Walker similarly plays Becky the victim of the bizarre crimes well, as an initially confident teen that is rendered despondent over the course of the film, maintaining the quick fear of immaturity in the face of well spoken authority. The handling of every character isn’t quite flawless, there are a couple of shakier portrayals that run a little on the weaker side but I suspect these hiccups lay within the tricky adaptation process. For the majority though the film is well-handled, avoiding cheap hysteria or explicitness makes the reality of the events further deplorable and dare I say relatable. These people were not psychologically strong-armed so much as manipulated through fear and flattery, causing an eerily assumed politeness that is perfectly illustrated come Sandra’s final scene. The phantom cop is charismatically played by the ever wonderful Pat Healy and used in a restrained fashion that is beneficial, keeping him suitably shrouded largely as a voice on the other end of the phone and interspersed with real-time domestic appearances that present an approachable balance between the enigmatic power he wields and the perverse prankster with too much time on his hands that he ultimately is. As an audience we get all that we need from him, everything that unfolds does of course present larger questions about why and how he managed to commit these long distance abuses but as in real life we rarely have coherent answers to these questions conveniently delivered to us.
Any voyeuristic moments are dutifully sterile and completely within context, providing a sense that had this film been in the hands of another young director they’d have possibly capitalised more on the leering scenes, dragging them out beyond the point of impact and probing past the realms of taste. It’s a frank relief that an upstart horror film maker with something to prove never laid his sticky hands on the premise. Whilst skilfully constructed and statically riveting, Compliance is easier to conclude as bleakly intriguing rather than darkly entertaining and it is perhaps advisable to approach it as such. The film is an admirable undertaking and although half of the tension is achieved by it being based on actual events that wouldn’t have been an easy thing to insure and overall it skews a fall into exploitation. A distinct lack of sensationalism or moralising nicely shows the thought behind the scenes that make it a recommendation for anyone wanting to leave a film reflective, perplexed and kind of needing a shower.