Writer-director Craig Zobel’s newest offering, “Compliance,” is a hot-button film. Based on true events from 70 cases of prank calls, “Compliance” toys with the theme of obeying, or not questioning an authority figure, no matter what the demands. Starring Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd and Pat Healy, “Compliance” offers up a chilling morality tale, until it goes too far and proceeds to undercut the point the film was trying to make.
“Compliance” starts with an overworked fast food manager, Sandra (Dowd), who already is burdened when a freezer full of food is spoiled. Sandra tries to right the wrong herself before corporate finds out. So at the start of the busy Friday night shift, she’s already under the gun.
Then Sandra receives a phone call from a Police Officer Daniels (Healy). Daniels describes one of Sandra’s workers, Becky (Walker) to a tee and claims that a complaint has been filed against her for stealing money from a customer’s purse. Sandra is stunned and of course wants to fully cooperate with the officer on the phone. He asks that Sandra hold her employee/thief in the back office-storage room until the police can come and take over.
Various tactics are employed by Officer Daniels to have Sandra try and find the “missing” money. Daniels starts by verbalizing threatening scenarios to Becky so that she’ll cooperate and not have to spend time in jail. He then coerces Sandra to help “save” Becky by conducting a strip search to find the money and help prove her innocence.
Director Zobel keeps the heat on and continues to make viewers more and more uncomfortable watching this outrageous drama unfold. In fact, for the first half of the film, audiences are mortified, yet can understand how the characters can be taken in by such manipulative word play. But then there’s the second half of the film.
There’s a well-known saying that oftentimes, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Never has there been a more fitting sentiment than with “Compliance.” When you’re dealing with a fictionalized storytelling format, even if the story is outrageously true, more often than not, there’s an inherent risk of ostracizing the audience. In the case of sexual submission/assault, the filmmakers also risked outcries of misogynistic gender play.
Yet the real misstep is that with so many characters falling under Daniels’ spell, “Compliance” simply loses its punch. With the continued humiliations Becky must endure, it’s hard for audiences to go all-in with this story. Even if a small percentage of the population fell for such a mean-spirited, sick prank, a majority would be questioning this abusive use of authority at some point. (Hence, the vocal outrage that has accompanied the film at screenings such as the Sundance Film Festival.)
On the plus side, “Compliance” elicits strong performances by Dreama Walker and Ann Dowd, but what could have been a fascinating, provocative look at how we implicitly trust authority figures becomes more of a fumbling of themes. And, the tidy tag that Zobel tries to attach to the end of the film isn’t entirely satisfying.
Certainly there is plenty of conversation to be had after a screening of “Compliance,” but one can’t help but wonder if part of the film’s salacious subject matter is just another attempt to grab headlines.
“Compliance” is 90 minutes, Rated R and opens in Los Angeles on August 24, for an exclusive run at the Nuart Theatre, and then expands to select cities.
For other film reviews by Lori Huck, check out:
‘The Awakening’ Film Review: A Good, Scary Ghost Story
‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’ Review