Rarely do films fill you with a sense of rage to the point of wanting to throw something at the screen because it is impossible to believe what is unfolding before your eyes. Such is the case with Compliance, Craig Zobel’s intense interpretation of a series of real-life events involving a serial hoaxster who prank calls fast food restaurant employees. What makes this film so infuriating to watch is that, as a viewer, you feel helpless to the manipulation of the characters. Though it be hard to watch, it speaks to the film’s effectiveness. Using a restrained, detached style with interweaving macro close-ups, Zobel creates a mood of heightened tension that is sustained effectively for the entire movie.
Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle aged manager of a fast food restaurant, is short on supplies of bacon and pickles for what is supposed to be an extremely busy Friday. After her employees arrive and begin their daily routine, a phone call from police officer Daniels (Pat Healy) summons Sandra away from her duties. Daniels reports that he is with a customer who claims that one of Sandra employees, the 19-year old Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen a large amount of cash from her purse. Trying to help the officer the best she can, she confines Becky to the office and carefully follows the policeman’s orders. What starts off as routine quickly becomes suspicious as officer Daniels requests become increasingly bizarre.
There is a certain level of angst that builds as characters who you sympathize with become victims to the powers of psychology. It’s similar to the famous Milgram experiment about obedience to authority figures and the reluctance to confront those with power. Zobel fully understands manipulation and controls the composition tightly, slowly creeping with his intent to get under your skin. The natural performances of the cast give each scene a sense of reality while also intensifying the conflicting emotions of everyone involved. The fact that this is based on a true story only further validates the disturbing vibe that Compliance gives off.
This is a cold and calculating examination of how easily the weak minded can be manipulated into doing terrible things. David Gordon Green produced this master work of subversion and with the right marketing this could be one of the most disturbing thrillers of the year. It’s near impossible to not become enraged as you witness the scenes unfold. Zobel has accomplished an impressive feat by fully affecting the emotional pull audiences will undoubtedly have when watching Compliance, one of the highest praises one can attribute to a director.