Two hugely contentious screenings at last year’s London Film Festival confirmed Compliance’s status as one of the most controversial films on last year’s festival circuit. Based on real-life events in America in which a ‘prank’ call would lead to cases of assault, Craig Zobel’s film raises a lot of questions and pushes a lot of buttons, but it is a remarkable, frank, uncomfortable piece of cinema that demands to be seen.
Ann Dowd (giving an Oscar-worthy but sadly snubbed performance) plays Sandra, the manager of a fast-food restaurant who receives a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy) accusing one of her staff members (Dreama Walker) of theft. Eventually complying with his increasingly worrying requests she and other members of staff (including the accused) become unwittingly complicit with his crime.
Craig Zobel has created a fascinating and quietly terrifying film that will make you question yourself as much as it might make you despair of humanity. He presents a bleak and uncompromising look at the way people react to authority figures that has clear links to Stanley Milgram’s experiments of the 1960s. In this case the caller uses his authority to manipulate the staff and get them to deliver his fantasies by playing on their own fears. Sandra is shown in the opening moments to be keen to avoid contacting management and when that threat is made over the phone she is clearly scared to show any sign of weakness or lack of control of the situation; and this plays into his hands wonderfully.
The responses of the characters involved are shocking in their willingness and the script identifies the way people have of justifying their own actions to themselves. On at least two occasions we see characters expand on what the caller has told them in order to subconsciously justify their actions.
Zobel also manages to create this subconscious additional memory in the audience and there is almost certainly a tendency for people to walk out of the cinema thinking that they have seen more troubling footage than is actually presented on screen.
The decision to shoot both ends of the phone call simultaneously helps to bring a tremendous realism to the performances and the actors involved are extraordinary in their portrayals. It is particularly interesting to witness Sandra, having taken time out of the interrogation to handle some issues on the shop floor, returning with much more confidence. It is as though she is once again comfortable with her position as manager; displaying a new found lack of patience with those questioning the police officer’s demands.
Compliance might seem unbelievable. Even with blinding letters emblazoned on the screen to let you know that it is based on true events, you watch with increasing disbelief and discomfort. But this is fact; these things did happen, and just as you struggle to comprehend how they could happen, the narrative and shock of the story will stay with you for a long time. Zobel is a talent to keep a very close eye on.
Gripping, endlessly fascinating and grim, Compliance is a film that you simply must see. You will be thinking and talking about it for months.
Compliance is out now.