Craig Zobel’s sophomore feature Compliance, based on the alarming reality of victimising prank calls, has built up a significant reputation since debuting at the Sundance Film Festival last year, not least due to its hard-hitting subject-matter and the significant protests that have befallen it; there were various reports of walk-outs and complaints were reported at screenings in the US.
Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a fast-food restaurant in Ohio, receives a phone call from police officer Daniels (Pat Healy) relating to a crime employee Becki (Dreama Walker) has supposedly committed. Told to keep Becki under observation under a special unit arrives, Sandra is then forced to commit sickening acts on Becki in order to uncover the money she’s been accused of stealing from a customer.
Shot with the precision and sensitivity of a documentary, though as not to glorify something that happens in America around seventy times a year, Compliance is a disturbing piece of cinema that adopts a dark, matter-of-fact approach to human behaviour, all the while exposing the sinister acts some people are willing to perform when placed under pressure by authoritative figures.
It’s an uncomfortable film to watch because it’s presented in such a down-to-earth manner. Zobel is extremely careful with his direction, choosing to maintain focus on the characters rather than the acts themselves, which mostly occur off screen. The confined, isolated space in which Becki is kept in is contrasted well with the bustling atmosphere of the fast-food restaurant itself.
This poses its own questions, mostly in how people seldom question matters not directly related to their own lives (Kevin’s unwillingness to question Sandra’s assurance that everything is above board being the most significant). Compliance’s portrayal of silent suffering is perhaps the most distressing aspect of the film. No one seems willing to trust Becki, even after property and body searches have revealed no supporting evidence.
It’s made all the more realistic and genuinely unnerving by the committed performances delivered by everyone, particularly Dowd and Walker. Healy is also convincing as the creepy officer Daniels, whose reveal only intensifies the unease felt as he seems unconcerned with the devastating harm he may be inflicting on his victims. Compliance, then, for its sheer nerve in tackling such difficult, yet need-to-know material is a terrific film.