Editor’s note: With Sundance’s most controversial film hitting theaters today, here is a re-run of our Compliance review from that festival, originally published on January 25.
It seems that there is always at least one film at Sundance that stirs up some sort of controversy – the kind the leads to people running out of screenings or ends with people screaming at post-movie question-and-answer sessions. In 2011, it was Lucky McKee’s The Woman, this year, it’s undoubtedly Craig Zobel‘s Compliance. Much like McKee was taken to task about presumed misogyny in his film, Zobel endured post-screenings Q&As in which the film was damned as being exploitative. In those cases, however, the hecklers were quite wrong. Compliance is an exceedingly well-made interpersonal drama that hinges on the limits (and, oftentimes, depths) of human nature and people’s response to certain carefully calibrated psychological tricks.
The film centers on fast food cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) on a day when her boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is already on edge and suspicious of her employees. So when a man calls up their particular Chick-Wich, claiming to be a police officer conducting an investigation that involves Becky, Sandra doesn’t blink at taking her to the back room and assuming the role of authority in the situation. The cops can’t get there just yet, and the investigation is ongoing, and Sandra, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you just helped out nice Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) until back-up arrives? You’ll help, Sandra? Wonderful. Great. Except, well, no, it’s not wonderful, and this is no regular police investigation. In fact, it’s not one at all.
As Sandra stays on the phone with Daniels, she continues to fall under his sway, obeying and complying with his every request, he is a cop after all. Right? The techniques that Daniels uses to manipulate Sandra, Becky, and later other members of the Chick-Wich family are quite transparent to an audience – he undermines Becky and Sandra’s responses (telling them to calm down when they already seem calm enough), he interrogates them, he pushes them to recognize and respect his authority, he makes attempts to relate to every person he speaks to, he dispatches threats, he compliments them. And Compliance spins on, completely horrifying and utterly unstoppable.
But while Daniels’ most basic tricks are intriguing enough, what’s most compelling and twisted about Compliance is the way its characters respond to things that Daniels frames as choices. When presented with only two options (the first being Becky’s “choice” to either except a strip search from Sandra or get hauled off to jail), the characters of Compliance never question that there are are other options – they only see the two that “the law” is telling them they have. Few people in the film ever step back and say a firm “no” or ask a real “why?” that demands a true answer, and the film is utterly unnerving for it.
The commonplace setting of Compliance increases the film’s sense of terror and tension, and Zobel intersperses scenes involving Becky and her ordeal with those showing diners blissfully ignorant to what is happening mere feet from them. While the film’s soundtrack and long shots on certain inanimate objects frequently feel heavy-handed and overbearing, Compliance is a riveting watch when it’s focused squarely on conversations between its characters – horrifying, maddening conversations with no comfortable end that unhinge the film’s audience just as much as they do its own characters.
The Upside: Compliance will undoubtedly engage audiences and force them to think about the most uncomfortable and unfathomable of situations. It’s remarkably well-crafted, as it looks good and sounds good and features a tight, economical script.
The Downside: The film is a tough watch, and one that doesn’t ever abate. While many of the tricks that Daniels uses to coerce his victims are classic ones, and though it’s based on a true story, it’s still a tough pill to swallow, one that will make it hard to look at your fellow man the same way for awhile.
On the Side: Yup, true story.