A study in unease Craig Zobel’s psychological thriller Compliance left me shaking, short of breath, and involuntarily mouthing expletives as the credits rolled. So effective is Zobel’s writing and direction that his film had this marked impression upon me despite prior familiarity with its story, having some time ago read about the swath of real life cases the movie is based upon. Compliance lays bare the subconscious human tendency to abdicate responsibility with the kind of spare, unwavering clarity you might expect in a Michael Haneke piece. Gripping, gruelling, and garnering its share of controversy Compliance is necessary, if discomforting, viewing.
The film’s narrative is as straightforward as its setting is generically bland. The manager of a run-of-the-mill fast food joint, in an unnamed town, gets a call from an Officer Daniels (played with reptilian relish by Pat Healy – The Innkeepers, Ghost World). The police officer informs franchise manager Sandra (a finely graded performance from Ann Dowd) that one of her employees has been reported stealing from a customer and needs to be detained until officers can arrive to investigate. Sandra helpfully complies and teen employee Becky (Dreama Walker – television’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 & Gossip Girl) finds herself shuffled into a back room and kept ‘under guard’. Officer Daniels, unable to make it to the scene for various reasons, convinces Sandra and others to ‘help him with the investigation’ to save Becky a trip to the station. Over the following four hours or so the situation slowly gets seriously out of hand.
To have created such an assured work as his second feature has put Zobel firmly on my radar as an American indie auteur to watch. His handling of the inflammatory subject matter shows both restraint and backbone. Shooting the bulk of the movie in a single locale the filmmaker successfully builds a very claustrophobic tension; the audience almost as unable to escape this situation as the key characters. The choice to simultaneously shoot/record live phone conversations from each end helps maintain believable interaction and, the director states, allowed for some amount of useful improvisation during filming. I’m undecided as to whether keeping the film even more tightly constrained by maintaining the Officer Daniels character as only a disembodied voice might’ve been a more effective construct for the film but take the director’s point about seeking to ensure that the character is experienced as an actual person rather than as an abstraction. I am also not entirely convinced by Zobel’s decision to telegraph out the ending as he does. On the positive side this coda includes a two minute, dialogue free, single interior driving shot which is visually one of the most captivating of the film.
Casting came up trumps for this project with Ann Dowd and Pat Healy, in particular, lending the film much of its tonal complexity. Dowd plays the frazzled, middle-aged manager with a fluid mix of compassion, frustration, desire for recognition, and relief to have ultimate responsibility for the situation removed from her already full plate. Healy’s Officer Daniels, whose ‘phone’s length’ physical distance is indicative of his emotional disconnection from the realities occurring, plays out bemusement masked control issues in a disturbingly reasonable, never over the top, fashion. There is one part where he blithely chuckles to himself about a detail one of Becky’s ‘guards’ volunteers that is pure sadism. Dreama Walker’s Becky might come off as a little too submissive but when you consider the inexperience and intimidation of youth conditioned to authority this assessment begins to seem less concrete.
I like the way in which Zobel has encapsulated his distilled thematic thrust in such aptly succinct titling: Compliance. Not only does the central crime and tension rely upon the willingness of many to literally comply to the voice of authority – from the direct compliance of Sandra through to Becky’s fellow employee/friend Kevin whose unwillingness to speak out, even if he won’t go along with proceedings himself, achieves the same end – but also relies upon a surrounding culture that teaches and strongly reinforces obedience to authority. In this sense we are all identified as complicit in creating an environment in which an extreme situation such as this becomes a feasible reality. As human experience proves – from the horrors of Nazi Germany to the research theatrics of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s to the more recent cases this film investigates – a good measure of questioning of authority and socio-political agitation is essential to a healthy, functioning society. Compliance is some scary shit that deserves consideration beyond a knee-jerk response of “I’d never go along with something so terrible!”. Don’t be afraid to find yourself in some of the character responses, be afraid to leave such topics unexamined.
WARNING: Compliance deserves its R16 rating. Please be advised that some people may find a it a difficult viewing experience.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell