Compliance is an experiment in how long its viewer will comply to watching the film before walking out of the theater or shutting your TV off. Director Craig Zobel has created a technically stellar film, but the backbone of his creation-its script-is missing too many vertebrae, asking for your suspension of disbelief to hold it together.
The film begins with Sandra (Ann Dowd), the insecure middle-aged manager of the local Chickwich fast food joint, giving a pep speech to her teenage employees before the store opens. Shortly after the speech, the teens take their positions behind the counters and engage in trivial conversation. In fact, Becky (Dreama Walker) talks to her shift supervisor Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) about how one of the three guys she’s dating wants her to send him racy photos via her cell phone. Sandra, seeking the spotlight, expresses to Marti that she thinks she’s going to get engaged and how she too “sexts”. This is the beginning of competition between the insecure manager and her immature teenage employee.
Shortly into the shift, Sandra receives a call from someone who claims to be a police officer. Based on the call, compliance-the disposition to yield to others, continues for the next hour of the film. The caller informs Sandra that Becky stole money from a customer’s purse, and that he has the victim with him. He also informs her that it’s all a part of a larger bust that he is currently consumed in on location at Becky’s home. These lies become the justification of why the caller can’t come to the restaurant and why those there must follow out his instructions. This film is based on real events, which is a sad statement on some portion of America. Not to be insensitive to those who fell victim, but the fact that a voice over the phone would incite someone to allow the atrocities that followed to take place is unbelievable. That’s the film's point. That’s the exploration. It’s something that is so unbelievable it could only happen in real life, and therefore perhaps it was not fit for screen...or at least this screenplay.
As the day moves forward, the caller gains his victims trust and submission through flattery and intimidation. He humiliates young Becky by having her be stripped searched to find the missing money, and then having almost every employee watch her at some point during the day. Most of the day Becky is only wearing an apron, and once Sandra is out of employees to watch Becky she resorts to calling her boyfriend to come and “stand guard” to watch Becky while they wait for him to come to the store.
There’s no question that Zobel has a mastery of direction. His camera work and pacing helps the viewer to feel uncomfortable. Shots of scum, old fries, and gunk embodies visually how dirty we feel as we watch the characters sink lower and lower in their moral decisions as they comply to a voice on the other line.
In spite of that, the film feels like a joke. It’s supposed to be a high pressure environment, but it’s not brought to reality on the screen. At one point, the caller actually fixes a sandwich while talking with his victims. The most believable part is when the caller runs to get another calling card to keep the session going. I know, I get it. We’re watching how apathetic the caller is, but the dramatization is just poor.
Compliance is an examination of how humans can let a situation spiral out of control. There have been many mob mentality films that have achieved and passed this test, but this one doesn’t because it doesn't feel authentic. The final twenty minutes allows logical thought to come back into the film, but after putting aside logic for the first hour and change it’s far too late unless you too complied. Technically the film is just short of a master class, but the script just doesn’t work, even if it’s based on real events.