Compliance (2012)
Directed by: Craig Zobel

Premise: Based on a true story. The manager of a fast food restaurant is phone called by a supposed police officer who claims one of her employees is wanted for stealing. Under the caller’s direction, the manager interrogates the employee with increasingly extreme demands.

What Works: Compliance is about what social scientist Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” When movies present us with evil it usually takes an ostentatious form. But in real life, evil quite often takes on an ordinary appearance. That sets up this film with a complicated challenge. Compliance is based upon numerous real life incidents and it adheres closely to the facts. But the details of the real life incident itself seem preposterous. The filmmakers have to find a way of telling this story in a way that makes it credible. That’s achieved through the cinematic style of the movie. The bulk of Compliance takes place on the grounds of a fast food restaurant and much of the action is limited to a back office. The movie is lit naturalistically and shot in cinema verite style, occasionally using handheld camera work but not in the distractingly shaky style of some action films. The acting and writing of Compliance complement the visual style. The phone conversations are scripted in a way that makes the hoax convincing and elicits believable responses from the restaurant staff. Most of the cast don’t look Hollywood. They generally appear like the kind of people found working in a fast food joint and their performances play credibly. Especially impressive is Ann Dowd as the restaurant manager. More than anyone else in this movie, Dowd has to convey how the confusion leads to corruption. Her character believes that she is doing the right thing and being a productive citizen. And that is what is so engaging, infuriating, and frightening about Compliance. This is a film in which an otherwise good person is turned into a means of torment and exploitation not through overt coercion but through her trustfulness and sense of duty. Compliance acts out the way in which good intentions can be marshaled for horrible ends and the film is a provocative and thoughtful piece of work.

What Doesn’t: Compliance is a frustrating film to watch. Audiences usually immerse themselves within the drama in much the same way we experience dreams. Despite the intimate scope and style of the movie, the unusual nature of its story invites us to second guess the characters and judge their bad decisions. This frustration is partly due to the film’s unflattering portrayal of humanity. The characters of the most popular movies are usually smarter, stronger, and braver than the average person. The characters of Compliance are not and their fallibility is off-putting. There are a few creative miscalculations in this film. About halfway through it is revealed that the caller is not a police officer. That’s not necessarily the wrong creative decision but Compliance might have been more effective if that reveal was left until the ending. On the other hand, astute viewers would probably sniff out the twist well ahead of the conclusion and it is important to establish that the caller is not a law enforcement officer. The ending of the picture is padded with some extraneous expository information that only seems intended to inflate the movie to a feature length. Compliance also might have been a little more subversive with a different actress in the role of the imprisoned fast food employee. Compliance is not exploitative and Dreama Walker does a good job in the part but casting an attractive young woman in the victim role keeps the horror of Compliance within the comfortable boundaries of a more conventional movie. Had the part been played by a homely-looking actress, the film might have reached another level of reality and subversion.

DVD extras: Interviews, featurettes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Compliance is not a fun movie to watch. But this picture is startlingly effective and disturbingly honest in its portrayal of people yielding to authority. As unpleasant as it is, Compliance is a conversation starter that’s well made and subversive.

 

Episode: #616 (October 16, 2016)