“Compliance” is an intentionally maddening, excruciatingly tense thriller that posits a notion I can’t totally agree with. Its story, which sees the morality of ordinary, law-abiding citizens wither under the instruction of a purported authority figure, suggests that nearly anyone is susceptible to following vile, outrageous orders if only they’re told to. Certainly, this is possible, as this film is closely based on a true occurrence. But does the behavior of those involved in the incident really say much about people in general, or was it, less insidiously, a perfect storm of perversion and idiocy?
The film begins with Sandra (Ann Dowd), a fast-food restaurant manager, dealing with a $1,500 loss in food due to employee error. She suspects Becky (Dreama Walker), a teenage employee, of being the careless culprit. There’s a low-key, effective early scene where Sandra listens as Becky casually discusses her multiple suitors, with the older woman then making a clumsy, transparent attempt to match the girl’s sexual energy. The stage has subtly been set for something horrible.
A phone call comes in from a man identifying himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He asks if there’s a young blonde woman working, a vague query that Sandra quickly answers in the affirmative. Officer Daniels says that he has witnesses and surveillance video of Becky stealing from a customer, and that, due to a manpower shortage, he needs Sandra to take the girl into the back office and assist him with the case.
Anyone who knows anything about how the police actually work would be highly suspicious already, but Sandra is more than happy to accommodate Officer Daniels’ request (more of a command, actually). Becky objects to the charges, though when she’s ordered to submit to a strip-search from Sandra by Officer Daniels, she offers little resistance. Soon, a large number of the staff are cycled in and out of the room, all following the caller’s demands to one extent or another, none asking the obvious: why Officer Daniels would have bystanders do his work over the phone.
From there, things get exponentially worse, and the sickening feelings cultivated by writer/director Craig Zobel give the film an achingly uncomfortable tone. Shot mostly in the cramped spaces of the chicken joint, there’s a suffocating feel as the point of no return is crossed in exponentially worse degrees. The restaurant employees more or less blindly accept the veracity of the persuasive caller, and even those who refuse to follow his more obscene orders do so because of moral discomfort rather than suspicion.
It’s hard to watch these people, as their collective, progressive surrender to this insanity engenders equal portions contempt and pity. Zobel wisely writes every employee as believably bereft of intelligence or wit, the sort of plain people likely to fall for such preposterous hoaxes. Even so, it’s difficult to accept the scenario as an indictment of humanity, as Zobel frames it, rather than simply the result of a certain group of people fortuitously falling victim to the caller’s wretched game. At the end of the film, the audience is informed that about 70 similar incidents were reported across the country. But out of those, how many went this far, and how many people simply hung up the phone?
The performances are driven by suggestions of nervous, even immoral energies — and I don’t mean those of the caller. Of particular note is Ann Dowd’s Sandra, a frustrated, overwhelmed woman who, while genuinely believing her every action to be that of a model citizen, takes well to being the instrument of a man’s sadistic fantasies. Dreama Walker has perhaps the most difficult role as the victim, spending most of the film barely covered with a dirty apron. To some extent, Zobel does her a disservice, not in the much discussed but conservatively filmed nudity, but in that Becky’s willingness to follow even the most outrageous instruction is under-examined. Can it simply be attributed to stupidity? Does Becky’s suggested promiscuity make her a more willing participant than most? Or does she, as the real-life victim said, simply want to keep her minimum wage job? Perhaps the poor girl is just lucky that the caller didn’t order her to stick her face in the deep fat fryer.
Zobel makes another tactical error in the unveiling of Officer Daniels as a regular guy in a nice suburban house, a revelation that comes fairly early on. Pat Healy does a fine job as the caller, an average-looking man whose motivations are never revealed, but his actions aren’t what drive the story. By clarifying audience suspicions that he is not a real policeman fairly quickly, Zobel removes the viewer from the you-are-there feel of the early scenes, making the happenings at the restaurant feel more like a spectacle than a day gone awry. Certainly, no one would contest or doubt that there are evil, perverted individuals capable of doing others great harm, so it’s the actions of Officer Daniels’ unwitting victims and accomplices that make the scenario captivating.
In spite of Zobel’s occasional misstep, the film unfurls this strange, sensationally awful situation so effectively that it’s easy to see why it inspired walk-outs at screenings and screaming matches at Q&As. It’s a good study in how to make the audience resent their impotence as they watch people ignore what seems, what should be, glaringly obvious. Most stingingly, Zobel’s suggestion that all some people need is permission to brutalize carries a harsh resonance. But let’s be honest: At what point does one stop seeing an allegory regarding our observance of authority and start witnessing the sad follies of a group of exceptionally stupid people?