Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Ashlie Atkinson
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I watched Compliance with my stomach in knots the entire time, wondering how much further it could go and whether I would even be able to make it through. It's that disturbing. The feelings and emotions it's likely to invoke in audiences attempting to endure the experience may be uncomfortable, but they're worthwhile nonetheless. The film depicts a real world scenario most people go to the movies to escape from, and after you see it, there's a good chance you'll be angry. "There's no way that could happen." "These people are idiots." "I would never do that." That's a normal reaction, but also an entirely misinformed and incorrect one. It's also an ironic response considering the characters' inability to see a truth that's literally right in front of their faces. The incident depicted in the films not only happened, it happened 70 different times in over 30 U.S. states. How do you explain that? The people are real. The events are real. And this doesn't veer much, if at all, from the exact incident it's based on, with writer/director Craig Zobel wisely choosing only to dramatize the details for maximum effect.
The story itself might be simple, but the characters' actions (or lack of such) aren't. Remember that famous Milgram obedience experiment (later adapted into a little seen 70's TV movie starring William Shatner) where subjects administer lethal electric shocks to people in another room simply because someone in a position of authority tells them to? That's this movie, except taken to the highest level possible and made that much more disturbing by the fact that these characters actually can see the harm they're inflicting and do it anyway. One woman in particular. And it's all because she just can't say "no." Her frustrating behavior escalates until the noose gets tied so tightly around everyone's necks that the suspense of how it will all resolve becomes unbearable. The only thing we do know is that it can't end well. And at its center is a deeply rich performance from a veteran character actress that easily ranks amongst the year's best, closely followed by another actress' emotionally devastating turn. It's a prime example of just how much can be accomplished on a smaller budget if all the right elements are in place.
The day has already off to a poor start for ChickWich fast-food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd). Having already been verbally dressed down by a supplier, she's running low on bacon because an employee left the fridge door open, and there's a visit from corporate looming. Mocked by her subordinates behind her back, it's clear from the opening minutes that Sandra runs a tight ship and prides herself on doing the best possible job, rarely deviating from company policy. When she gets a phone call from a man referring to himself as "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy) about a complaint that one of her employees stole money out of a customer's purse, she summons the alleged perpetrator, Becky (Dreama Walker), into to her office.
Denying any involvement in the theft, Becky sits there as Sandra is questioned and given instructions over the phone to search her belongings until the cops can arrive to handle the situation. Before long she's asked to do things that go far beyond the usual protocol for any law enforcement official, much less the manager of a fast food joint. I should probably stop there at the risk of spoiling too much but let's just say it's clear pretty early on that this guy on the phone isn't a cop and something's very off.
The situation escalates to alarming levels as Sandra dutifully fulfills all the obligations asked of her by this man and even starts involving others in Becky's detainment, like shift supervisor Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), goof-off employee Kevin (Philip Ettinger) and even her own perplexed fiancee Van (Bill Camp). Soon they've all past the point of no return, getting too close to this increasingly perilous situation to see the forest from the trees. You keep waiting for somebody to say or do something that would put an end to Becky's undeserved misery and humiliation, but the longer it goes, the more disturbing it gets, making it only that much harder to watch. We quickly realize the "somebody" to stop this definitely won't be Sandra, who's apparently never heard an outrageous command she'll refuse to obey.
The caller and his actions are presented very cleverly throughout. And they have to be since the events, despite being inspired by a true story, would seem almost too outrageous to believe unless Zobel executed this perfectly. One of the boldest decisions he makes involves whether to fully reveal the prankster's identity or keep him as a threatening, disembodied voice on the phone. If this were a horror film or a mystery/thriller you could argue for the latter but since this aims higher and fits more into the category of a psychological character study, he makes the right call in granting us full disclosure into how he operates.
We see how this man's constantly re-adjusting his story to fit the developing situation and changes his tone at various points to get the desired responses and needed cooperation from his victims/subjects. It's especially evident in how he berates the accused Becky while manipulating Sandra with praise she's likely not used to receiving in daily life. You can tell aiding this "officer" makes her feel wanted and important, and the more that happens, the easier she becomes to manipulate. When we do eventually meet the caller, actor Pat Healy somehow manages to exceed all terrifying expectations of what we think he could be. There's no money involved in this scam and the majority of laws are broken by his targets in the restaurant, who really just become pawns in a sick game he's playing for sociopathic thrills. It's clear this guy's a pro and he's done this before.
That Ann Dowd wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this staggering, multi-layered performance is criminal. Even as I was practically screaming at the screen in disbelief at Sandra's cooperation, Dowd subtly hints at an entire personal history that's brought her to this point. She doesn't play Sandra as dumb because she isn't. She's very good at what she does, but has probably been dumped on all her life, leaving her with the inability to say "no" to anyone or anything. Even her relationship with her fiancee, the one aspect of her life that seems to bring her any joy, feels manufactured in her own mind.
I began the film liking Sandra, and despite her sinking into what seems like the depths of moral hell after that, Dowd still made me pity rather than disdain her by its end. It would have been so easy to play this woman as cruel or stupid but because she represents her as a good person trying (and failing miserably) to do the right thing, this entire story has even more of a bite. You want to say that if this woman can fall victim to a prank like this, then anyone can, but we know that's not completely true. It takes a certain personality type and this scam artist literally found the perfect mark in this woman.
An even more physically and emotionally grueling performance is given by Dreama Walker as Becky and anyone only familiar with the actress from her perky TV comedy work on Don't Trust The B---- in Apt. 23 should probably prepare themselves. Spending nearly half the movie topless, the treatment her character endures may be humiliating, offensive, and in many ways the most unwelcome nudity you could see in movies, but it sure isn't pointless. You'd figure any actress would really have to have ultimate trust in their director to do the shocking things that are asked of Walker so it's a relief that Zobel returns the favor by earning it and avoiding any sort of exploitation. Everyone that happens to Becky needs to happen for the story and while I always feel uncomfortable calling film performances "brave," Walker's work comes about as close as it gets. Had she not completely surrendered herself to the role, there would certainly be a lot less to talk about when it ended. She makes Becky seem so vulnerable it's almost as if the character's a bleeding wound that can only be stopped by someone willing to step in and do it. After a while the horrifying possibility presents itself that maybe no one will.
The third act of the film is really something to behold when you consider how much tension Zobel has already squeezed out of such a heart-pounding premise. It's easy to come out of this blaming one character but nearly everyone on screen is somewhat responsible, or at least "compliant," in what transpires. And it's worth noting what it takes to end the ordeal, hinting that only someone completely removed from such a dire situation can objectively assess it. Zobel goes further still with an epilogue that asks the same big questions we do of the characters, concluding in a final scene that strangely reminded me of Fargo, conveying that the most deplorable crimes can seem that much worse when committed by small town people you see at the grocery store, go to church with or even get served by at your local fast-food restaurant. Compliance has sparked a certain degree of outrage among a vocal minority who have seen it. But it isn't because they feel it couldn't happen. It's because they know it can, and did. Admitting that is tough, especially when the events could so easily involve any one of us.