Craig Zobel’s Compliance asks a relatively basic question – “How far would you let a strange situation go before putting a stop to it?” – then spends 90 excruciatingly uncomfortable minutes allowing audience members to reach their own answers. It’s all but guaranteed we’ll each arrive at different breaking points while watching Zobel’s pressure-cooker of a movie. But getting to that moment is most of the film’s fun (if that’s the right word to use).
The story’s too goofy to be true, except that Compliance draws from actual events. During a particularly busy time of the day, a police officer (Pat Healy) phones a neighborhood fast food joint and asks to speak with Sandra (Ann Dowd), the restaurant’s manager. The cop claims that a customer phoned in a robbery, accusing one member of the food chain’s staff of stealing money from the patron’s purse.
The caller, who identifies himself as Officer Daniels, tells Sandra that he’d really appreciate her help in his investigation. Through a line of intentionally vague questioning, Daniels narrows his suspects down to Becky (Dreama Walker), the pretty teenager passing time at this thankless fast-food gig. Daniels orders Sandra to interrogate Becky in the restaurant’s back office. He asks Sandra to detain Becky until officers can arrive. And while they are waiting, Daniels suggests that Sandra strip search Becky, claiming the money that she stole still must be on her person.
Have you waved the white flag yet? Zobel, who writes and directs Compliance, strategically stacks his deck so that we aren’t instantly doubting the authenticity of Officer Daniels, or shooting holes through the motivations of the frazzled Sandra. It helps that Dowd gives one of the year’s best performances. Often acting opposite nothing more than a telephone receiver, she conveys a wide range of subtle emotions, from doubt and mistrust to frustration and anger. Her inherent desire to please drives her interactions with Officer Daniels, and that susceptibility colors her ability to think rationally when she’s confronting Becky.
Would you have stopped this bizarre line of questioning if you were in Sandra’s shoes? How about if you were Becky, and were being accused of a crime by your frazzled superior and an alleged authority figure? How much power should an unidentified police officer be able to wield?
Zobel addresses each of these questions as he moves us along his measuring stick. But he also taps into the titillating, voyeuristic urge of the audience to watch the scenario play out as Compliance determines where we’d logically (and emotionally) put our feet down. Characters repeatedly say, “Enough.” Becky asks to speak with either her parents, or a lawyer. And if Zobel gets a pass on some fairly ludicrous plot points, it’s primarily because Compliance owes its existence to an actual, demented prank that took place at a McDonald’s. You can watch the ABC News coverage of that case here. But in a nutshell, a gullible manager put his employee through the wringer because he thought he was obeying a law-enforcement officer.
Compliance convincingly argues that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. But it goes a few extra steps by questioning how we’d respond if we were in said situations. Your answers might surprise you.