Written and directed by Craig Zobel, Compliance premiered twelve months ago at the Sundance Film Festival. When a prank caller claiming to be a police officer convinces Sandra (Ann Dowd), a location manager at a fast food chain, that one of her register staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer that evening; she complies with the caller’s requests without question (no matter how unlike protocol and inappropriate). Sandra is initially manipulated into keeping Becky under supervision in the back of the store, confiscating her possessions and ordering a strip search, but as Sandra enlists different supervisors, including her partner Van (Bill Camp), the procedure takes increasingly sinister turns. What transpires in this film is inspired by true cases – and as the shocking stat reveal at the conclusion claims, not just one – meaning that this film can’t be ignored. Zobel, by bringing these baffling events to the screen, creates a confronting and fascinating experience. He builds a claustrophobic location and mounts tension with some inventive direction. If you know this prior to watching the film then I think it is easier to accept the actions of the characters. If you don’t, then it is very difficult to believe that these events took place and it is even hard to sympathise with the victims. This was my problem.
When I was watching Compliance I had to resist the urge to stop it. I got a sense of what was coming and feared for Becky. This is an extremely unsettling expose about our perception of authoritative hierarchy and how one can lose sight of their morals when their role is required to exceed their jurisdiction. Against better judgment, how far do you accept the orders of a perceived higher authority? With such a distressing moral dilemma at the core, Compliance has haunted audiences and if you have ever worked in customer service, will leave you wondering how you would handle such a situation. I feel I must warn you that this film is far from entertaining and will likely leave you squirming in your seat, and create a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.
While Zobel seems to think that most viewers will be aware that the film is based on true events and that these events are widely known, he disappointingly doesn’t offer up much intrigue regarding the caller. I suspected what Sandra did not almost immediately, and grew increasingly frustrated when she (and Becky) didn’t put it together. I can certainly understand the victims of these calls being quite offended by the portrayal here. Part of me is even opposed to this film existing. Having not been aware that the events depicted were inspired by real events, I do feel like the victims have been exploited.
Sandra treats the ensuing investigation as just another of her accumulated tasks for the shift. It is just as important as ensuring the orders are assembled correctly and the money drops done on schedule. It is an unexpected stress in addition to busy patronage and some already mounting pressures, but this call does not receive the attention it warrants. Sandra takes what the man on the line says very seriously. He has an answer for every inquiry so what’s the problem? But she doesn’t listen to how he says it, and therein lays the problem. She is compliant with the caller because she believes the quicker his instructions are performed the quicker the police will arrive (and she has such faith in authority she never once doubts they will arrive), and the sooner she can return to her regular duties.
When it is suggested that a different member of staff guard Becky, Sandra goes into management mode, audibly shuffling around personnel (while on the phone) to see who is free for the assignment. Sandra seems somewhat charmed by the caller, and experiences a sense of satisfaction that she has done the right thing. At the beginning she doesn’t seem to believe that Becky had done anything wrong and informed the store supervisor that Becky “allegedly stole” while remaining skeptical. Later on, after the stress of the day has taken a toll, she seems adamant that Becky has done something wrong and doesn’t seem the least bit sympathetic considering the humiliation she has suffered. She is sitting nude and barely covered by an apron. She even scolds Becky on one occasion for speaking out of turn. She is the caller’s puppet, but because she has the power within the confines of the store, she carries out the humiliation under the guise of simply being compliant.
Dowd and Walker are terrific, Heather McIntosh’s unnerving score is effective and Compliance has a great ending. But the set up is well considered by Zobel, too. The world of this film for almost the entirety is the confines of the diner – and this is as typical a fast food restaurant as you will find. The mundane regular occurrences happen – a team meeting to discuss a refrigerator door left open overnight and the potential visit from a mystery shopper. The staff chats about their relationships and weekend, and diners sit quietly eating their meals.
Compliance is a tough sit. To its detriment, it might be the most uncomfortable watch over the course of the last twelve months. These cases have understandably caused concern and challenge us to ponder how much we trust our established authorities, and consider how power can be exploited in such a situation as this.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.