Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy
Running Time: 90 minutes
Imagine you are the manager of a popular fast food restaurant. What would you do if you received a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer who is investigating a complaint that one of your employees stole money from a customer? Would you agree to help the officer by keeping the employee, a 19-year-old woman, in a back room while searching her things? Would you agree to strip search her?
It’s easy to scoff at the notion of agreeing to do any of these things. Most of us would ask for some sort of police identification, right? Or make the cop come to you and question the girl in person? It seems like common sense, but the truth is that we really don’t know how we would react in a situation without having been there before.
Compliance tells the story of the above scenario, and every single aspect of the film is 100% true. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a local ChickWich restaurant, receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He notifies her about the fake complaint, and she brings the 19-year-old “suspect”, Becky (Dreama Walker), into the back room to investigate. Firmly believing she is talking to a police officer, Sandra follows along with the man’s orders, even going so far as to perform a strip search. As if that weren’t worse enough, the “investigation” spirals out of control as other people become involved, and Becky is forced into even more unfathomable actions.
During the entire film, I found myself saying over and over: “are you kidding me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening.” It is mind-blowing that the manager, the victim and the others who get tangled in the mess all willingly go along with this person’s orders simply because they believe he is a cop. It all sounds so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real… but it absolutely is. After viewing the film, I immediately looked up the true story, and every single detail was accurate.
Watching this man, who we occasionally see on the other end of the phone, manipulate both the manager and employee is extremely uncomfortable. This is not an easy watch by any means, and its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year brought out a number of angry reactions. Some walked out of the screening; others resorted to shouting matches. Yes, this is a film capable of evoking those types of powerful emotions, and it’s unlike any other film in recent years.
This is only director Craig Zobel’s second full-length film (he is also co-founder of the popular animated Internet cartoon, Homestar Runner), and he already has the traits of a seasoned veteran. He is careful not to show us some of the more extreme moments of compliance on screen, thankfully, and he makes masterful use of long takes, especially near the end. The performances from all involved are also strong, especially from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker. I heard Dowd’s name being mentioned in some awards chatter, and her performance most certainly warrants recognition. And poor Walker, she does an amazing job in a difficult role, especially as she is half-naked for the majority of the film.
It’s a bit tricky to full-on recommend Compliance. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, but damn if it isn’t an unsettling watch. At the very least, it’s scary to imagine just how far some people will go when they are being ordered around by someone of authority.